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UTRGV boosts income limits for free tuition to $100K but gaps remain

Barbara Brannon

You can read this story in Spanish by clicking here.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) will pay tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates with family incomes of $100,000 or less starting next fall.

Current, readmitted, transfer and incoming students are eligible for the Tuition Advantage program, the university said. Incoming first-year students need to be in the top 10% of their high school class, or score a minimum of 19 on their ACT and a 990 on their SAT.

The program covers tuition and fees that have not already been paid by federal and state grant funds. Essentially, if a student only receives partial financial aid, UTRGV covers the remaining costs. If a student receives no financial aid, UTRGV pays their tuition and fees entirely. Tuition for one undergraduate year at UTRGV, as a state resident, is $9,541.

Last fall, UTRGV increased its income threshold to $95,000, in response to how the COVID-19 pandemic affected its students financially. UTRGV increased the threshold to $100,000 to include more students after seeing many were still left without financial aid options. According to College Promise, UTRGV is one of four schools that offer some assistance for students with $100,000 in family income. UTRGV’s program pays for all four years. Recently, the University of Texas at San Antonio increased the income threshold of their tuition assistance program, Bold Promise, to $70,000.

“There are some students that do apply for financial aid and because their household income is at least $100,000, the only thing that they qualify for is student loans,” said Griselda Castilla, Associate Vice President for Strategic Enrollment at UTRGV. “This is allowing us to go in and assist those students so they don’t have to take on that loan debt.”

The university said the Tuition Advantage program is the largest tuition program of its kind in Texas, possibly one of the largest in the country.

“This move by UTRGV is unprecedented and very welcomed,” said Morley Winograd, President of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, a nonprofit seeking free college tuition in all 50 U.S. states.

UTRGV’s extension of the Tuition Advantage program comes as the White House drops free community college tuition from its spending plans, according to a recent NPR report.

The 10-year, $2 trillion plan — called the Build Back Better Act — had included a federal/state partnership that would have the federal government sending billions of dollars to states, so long as they eliminate their public college tuition and fees.

More federal spending on community college tuition isn’t completely off the table: expanding Pell Grants for low-income students and money for college completion and vocational programs is still being discussed, NPR reported.

“This move, focused on income limits for four-year (universities), brings at least the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley very close to the ultimate program Democrats were supporting at the national level,” Winograd said.

Though UTRGV will likely have more students able to attend university through their tuition assistance program, it only covers a portion of the cost. “Tuition and fees, like those that are covered in (UTRGV’s) program, represent roughly 20% of the net cost of attending college. When you factor in other necessities, these are non-optional things: you need textbooks, you need a roof over your head, you need food, you may need transportation,” said Jonathan Feinstein, the State Director of Texas for the Education Trust, a national nonprofit advocating for educational equity, primarily for students of color and students of low-income background.

Feinstein said low-income students would still likely need to work 25 hours a week to cover their costs while attending school.

“When people hear the word “free college,” you’ve got to dig beneath that headline to really understand the full cost and what is and is not covered through programs like these.”

While Feinstein praised UTRGV for expanding the financial eligibility for students to attend university tuition free, he said the program still relies on academic merit to qualify, a potential barrier for education access. “That’s not necessarily expanding the pool of students. Frankly, as a state, we need to be focused on making sure more students are gaining access and ultimately completing these degrees and high-value credentials, and those are going to be the historically underserved Black and Latino students that institutions like UTRGV are established to serve.”

UTRGV is trying to address some of these gaps amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Students have sought financial relief from the university for rent, medical expenses and technology.

“The need is still there,” Castilla said. “Students are still requesting assistance.”

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Gaige Davila is the Border and Immigration Reporter for Texas Public Radio.