UTRGV announces large-scale free tuition program

Eligibility, funding details shared for Tuition Advantage grant

EDINBURG — Beginning in the fall of 2020, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will cover tuition and mandatory fees for qualifying students with a family income of $75,000 or less through the Tuition Advantage grant.

UTRGV President Guy Bailey made the official announcement in the crowded lobby of the Performing Arts Center on Monday morning.

In-state, first-time freshmen in addition to returning and transfer students that demonstrate financial need, enrolled in 15 credit hours or more, along with meeting a minimum academic score in their respective categories are eligible.

Also, freshmen must earn a minimum 19 ACT or 1010 SAT or be top 10% of their high school class, while returning and transfer students must have a minimum 2.5 GPA, according to program literature.

“If you come from a working class or middle class family, you can come here and get a great education without mortgaging your future,” Bailey said addressing the audience.

In addition to the legislative session, the university’s internal financial aid staff were key to approving this measure, he said.

“This requires a lot of very careful, fiscal management,” Bailey said. “This is not something you can do willy-nilly.”

Over 21,000 undergraduate students receive any financial aid, with about 18,500 undergrads coming from households of $75,000 or less estimated for the 2020-21 academic year, according to UTRGV.

About 52% of undergrads, or around 13,000 students, will pay no tuition or mandatory fees in the next academic year, Magdalena “Maggie” Hinojosa, vice president for strategic enrollment, said in reference to university projections.

Students of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley are seen at the Edinburg campus Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

Hinojosa said they went through a process of looking at programs, student income levels and evaluating needs.

“We don’t just look at a student as a number, we’re looking at you as a person,” Hinojosa said.

UTRGV spokesperson Patrick Gonzales said students have guaranteed tuition and fees, and essentially pay in predictable amounts. Public universities are required by state law to “set aside” a certain percentage of funds from tuition to assist students who have financial need, he said.

Funds were reallocated to help make the new grant possible, Gonzales said when asked how the university can afford a free tuition program this large in scope.

The Tuition Advantage program is essentially a “rebrand” of the Achieve program, which covered a gap in tuition and fees per semester for students with family income of $50,000 or less, in addition to meeting other criteria, he said.

About half of the students that come from household incomes between $75,000 and $100,000 are expected to have reduced tuition and fees, Bailey said.

UTRGV’s measure follows similar tuition measures from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at El Paso in July.

UT Austin provides fully covered tuition to eligible students with household incomes up to $65,000, with money coming from a $160 million endowment from oil funds, according to the Texas Tribune.

UTEP’s grant that is similar to the UTRGV grant has a student household income threshold of about $40,000 or less to cover tuition and fees for eligible students through its PayDirt Promise grant, according to the El Paso Times.

State Sens. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, were also in attendance, speaking on the significance of this moment.

For current students, this offers a way toward funding education and drawing in family who may not have seen university as an option.

“There’s a lot of first generation students, a lot of non-traditional students, so I think the opportunity that is being presented and was announced today is really going to open doors,” Ingrid De La Torre, Student Government Association president, said.

Education junior Raymond Hand said his family makes under $75,000 and this can be a draw for the university.

“We might see more incoming freshmen next year, now that this is around more people might think college is more affordable, which it is,” Hand said.

Three UT System universities have expanded their tuition guarantee programs.

“The UT System is committed to increasing access and student success at all of our institutions, and we applaud UTRGV for launching this extraordinary program to make a high quality college education more accessible and affordable for all,” UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken said in a news release.

Guy Bailey, president of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, is seen at the UTRGV Performing Arts Center following the announcement of a new tuition program Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com