We recently learned about some great news at the University of Houston-Victoria. The university has received a $2.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education that will help us launch new programs to promote undergraduate student success. That good news was followed by an announcement that UHV has received a $50,000 grant from the American Electric Power Foundation to provide tuition assistance for commuter students in a new Summer Bridge Scholars program.
I think this is exceptionally good news, but I also recognize that some people will question whether this is money well spent. Isn’t it a fair question to ask why a student after 12 years of education needs help when coming to a university? Shouldn’t students be prepared, and aren’t programs that provide all these extras a poor use of money needed elsewhere?
Well, in an ideal world, that might be the case, but we don’t live in an ideal world. UHV serves a region in Texas that is rural in nature and underserved by higher education. Many of our schools are working as hard as they can to help our children, but the reality is that they do not have the resources of larger, urban, wealthier school systems. It has been my experience during the last approximately 40 years at six different universities in four different states that sometimes even the valedictorians and salutatorians at smaller, rural high schools still need remedial and/or developmental work when they arrive on campus. Not all students are starting at the same mark.
Additionally, a significant portion of our students are first-generation students, meaning their parents did not go to college, so they come from homes where there is no frame of reference for how to “be ready” to attend a university. Those students will arrive with not only weaker academic backgrounds, but also without a clear notion of what is about to follow.
The positive impact of earning a bachelor’s degree is well documented. Individuals who get a degree will earn, on average, almost $2 million more during their lifetimes than those who do not. There also is significant data to indicate the numerous benefits to society in raising the level of educational attainment. In the simplest of terms, as the percentage of people with a degree increases, so does the per capita income of that community. Degree holders are more likely to be engaged civically, pay more taxes and support community goals in a variety of other ways. They also tend to be healthier and live longer – again, on average.
Part of the reason public higher education exists is to further the goals of society in general. It originally was conceived as an investment by society in its own success. Education always has been seen as a path to improving people’s lives and prospects. There was a time when higher education in particular was available only to wealthy people. Public institutions were meant to be places were people could enhance their futures through their own hard work.
UHV was placed here to serve the best interests of the people of the state of Texas, whose tax dollars support it. We are here to produce graduates. We don’t get partial credit for students who flunk out. We earn our keep by producing graduates. That suggests we are well served by helping all students get over the bar and achieve their degrees. And, notice I said “get over the bar,” not “lower the bar.” We are here to produce graduates who are prepared to be competitive in the workplace and lead lives of significance in their communities.
So to me, the logic is clear and convincing. The more we invest in making our students successful, the better it is for our community, our region and our state. If we can take students with weak backgrounds and help them learn the skills they need to become strong enough to graduate, then we are changing those students’ lives as well as improving the communities they enter after graduation.
The mark of an excellent university is whether it can take a student from wherever they are and move them to where they need to be. I would argue that these programs demonstrate that UHV is a university of excellence. The money we will be spending from these grants is not only money well spent, it is an investment in a brighter future for Victoria and the Coastal Bend.