EDINBURG — Registration for the second cohort of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is officially over and administrators are evaluating an enrollment decrease acknowledged as significant, but somewhat expected.
“One, we were graduating record numbers of people, more than 10,000 over the last two years. The other thing we had were new admission standards, which were only fully applied for the first time this year,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said. “We knew that the combination of those things would probably drive our head count down.”
As of Thursday, Aug. 9, — 10 days into the fall semester — the university reported a total enrollment of 3,176 graduate students and 27,501 undergraduates who began classes this fall. Final numbers are expected to be released today.
Compared with the university’s inaugural year, the total cohort is down by 3.85 percent, with the graduate cohort down by 588 students and undergraduates down by 576 students, according to the numbers reported 10 days into the fall 2015 semester.
Last week, Bailey sent a letter to UTRGV Leadership Council addressing concerns over this decrease and explaining some of the contributing factors, which are for the most part seen as positive.
“The number of entering freshman is currently at about 300 less than last year,” Bailey wrote in the letter sent on Aug. 30. “This freshman class is an especially strong one, with one of five entering freshman in the top 10 percent of their high school class and more than half in the top 25 percent. Further, less than 10 percent need remediation at all.”
Having students that are fully ready to cope with college is especially important considering the university gets funding based on the number of weighted student credit hours rather than head count, Bailey explained. From the fall 2015 to the fall 2016 there was an 8.2 percent increase in students taking 15 credit hours or more, which he said not only contributes to funding but the students’ ability to graduate in four years or less.
“We’d like to grow our head count enrollment, too, but we want to be sure we grow it the right way,” Bailey said. “The only ethical thing you can really do is admit students who have a good chance to graduate. That’s very important. So we are really pleased with that.”
Last year, university officials unveiled a new approach to its admissions and application process, which, unlike those at UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville, includes essay submissions and depends less on student test scores. The review process, officials said at the time, would focus more on a holistic view of the student’s college readiness.
The university received 13,357 applications for entering freshman and 19,433 applications in total for the fall 2016 semester, which includes transfer and post baccalaureate students. Out of these applications, 7,207 students were accepted, said Maggie Hinojosa, vice president for strategic enrollment.
This number actually increased from last year when the university received about 11,000 entering freshman applications, but Hinojosa said that inaugural year the application window, which usually opens a year in advance, opened later due to the transition.
Havidán Rodriguez, UTRGV provost and former interim President at UTPA, said the higher number of graduates in 2015 and higher number of students enrolled at UTPA in the fall of 2014, which set a record high number of 21,042, could also be attributed to students rushing to graduate from the legacy institutions and wanting to be admitted under old admission standards.
“There were a lot of students who spent four, five years at UTB or UTPA, so they wanted a diploma that said UTB and UTPA, so we had a significant number of students taking 15, 16, 18 credits in order to graduate,” Rodriguez said.
In his letter, Bailey also highlighted an increase in retention of those who started as first-time, full-time freshman in 2015. The retention rate is at 81 percent, he said, about 6 points higher than UTPA and UTB and above the national average, which is at around 61 percent for open enrollment institutions.
“These retention rates would have put us in third place in the UT System last year behind UT Austin and UT Dallas, two institutions with significantly higher admission standards,” Bailey wrote in the letter.
A worrisome sight was the number of graduate students admitted this year. Compared with the fall of 2015, the number of graduate students decreased by 588 students this year, or 15.6 percent. Bailey said this was an unexpected decrease.
“We need to look very carefully at all of our processes with graduate students,” Bailey said. “That’s the number one thing that concerns me a lot. But part of it is that we had to change the system for graduate applications, so that caused some delays.”
Dave Jackson, dean of the graduate college, said there were several problem areas that indicated they would have a drastic decrease this year; one was issues with the application system, the second was a few doctorate programs that didn’t admit students this fall, and a record number of students graduating last year, which can be seen as a non-issue.
When it comes to the application system, Jackson said the university used ApplyTexas, a system developed so that students can submit one application to any Texas university. This program is used for undergraduate students at UTRGV, but for the purposes of the graduate college the system was inefficient.
“It was designed for undergrad applications, not for graduate applications,” Jackson said. “With undergraduate applications, there is very little supportive documents (required) to substantiate your application … You don’t need recommendations, you don’t need personal statements, you don’t need a portfolio — all of those things you don’t need for undergrad. For graduate studies, you need all of those things.”
The system did not have the functionality to do that, so some of the applicants delivered some of these documents in person, he said. The university switched systems during the summer, but at that point the process had not only delayed, but could have potentially discouraged some applicants.
The deadline to apply was July, but the lack of documentation made for some of these deadlines to extend and applications being reviewed late into the summer.
“Some programs were accepting applications all the way down to August 1, just to help and facilitate the students” Jackson said. “It takes time to review the application and get you a decision. If you are getting your decision August 15, and school begins August 29, that did not leave much time for you to organize your life.”
The two doctorate programs in education — one in curriculum and instruction and one in educational leadership — were not accepting students in order to review the program and begin accepting students in the spring 2017.
“That was not students not choosing to come, that was an internal decision made not to accept any students as we worked through the program, change a few things, strengthen the program, and we are now taking applications for spring 2017,” Jackson said.
Overall, university officials said 2016-2017 will be used as a base model for years to come. The inaugural year for UTRGV involved many unique processes such as students being grandfathered in from the legacy institutions, not having to fulfill some requirements due to UTPA and UTB having different processes and changes in systems.
Many of these systems and processes have been and will continue to be analyzed, said Rodriguez, in order to ensure the upcoming application season, which is already underway, can work better for new and transitioning students. But nobody is panicking, he said, considering this is a new institution setting its foundation.
“For UTRGV, given all the transitions, given all the changes, given the admissions last summer, given the large number of graduates we had, this is expected,” Rodriguez said. “Now, we don’t want this to happen in the future, so we are looking at the processes, we are looking at the timelines, we are looking at making sure that courses are available.”