Pete Gallego: Rural Texas universities must come up with fresh ways to help


President Joe Biden and federal officials are exploring whether to forgive up to $50,000 in college debt for every former student. And in Austin, lawmakers will soon debate whether to include more financial aid for future students in the next state budget.

These are important conversations. On average, Texas students graduate from public colleges and universities with $27,000 in debt. And Texans who start but never finish college rack up more than $14,000 in debt on average along the way.

But in far West Texas, we know that the conversations must go deeper.

We are asking how students can graduate without that crushing debt in the first place. Just as important, once students have taken out loans, how do we make sure they actually leave campus with a degree in hand?

The challenges are especially stark when you move beyond the state’s large flagship schools. Smaller, rural universities reflect their individual communities, many of which are losing population and jobs, and their mission is to ensure these students earn degrees and go on to serve their communities.

Sul Ross — where I am an alum well as president — has more than 2,000 students across four campuses. Our main campus in Alpine is the only four-year institution within 150 miles, and our other locations in Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Uvalde share campuses with Southwest Texas Junior College.

We serve many first-generation students who want to stay relatively close to home and who qualify for federal Pell Grants for part of their tuition.

Many of our students start with developmental classes that prepare them for other coursework and for their majors. Too often, they tell me they’ve exhausted their limited financial aid on these introductory classes and then must take out loans or work one or two jobs to get to the finish line and earn their degrees.

Sometimes, that becomes a barrier to finishing school, so they drop out. During COVID, I have heard these stories more and more.

So at Sul Ross, we are introducing aggressive programs that can be a model for other Texas universities to tailor to their unique, local needs.

We’re starting in our residence halls, which sit empty during the summer even though the university pays for utilities and upkeep. This summer, incoming students will be invited to live there essentially for free so they can begin classes and get a head start on earning their degrees even before the fall semester starts.

On the other end of the college career, we are introducing the new Promise Scholarship for students with financial need who are within 30 credit hours of completing their degrees — so they don’t drop out with nothing but debt to show for their time on campus.

Drawing on the lessons from COVID, Sul Ross is investing in technology to improve distance learning so students can take the courses they need to graduate, even if those classes are not on the students’ primary campus. We are part of the Texas State University System, along with other rural universities, where we are empowered to develop solutions like this that meet our local needs.

Universities must stay focused on using federal and state support to get to the root of the debt problem, meet our local needs, and serve today’s students most effectively.

Pete Gallego is president of Sul Ross State University and a former Texas legislator and representative to U.S. Congress. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.



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