More and more high school students throughout the country are getting a headstart on college either by taking Advanced Placement courses and exams or by enrolling for college courses before they receive their high school diplomas.
Nineteen such students from the Rio Grande Valley were rewarded this fall for their successful early start by being named The University of Texas-Pan American's first University Scholars and receiving the programs four-year Distinguished Achievement Scholarship.
The brainchild of Special Assistant to the President Earl (Bud) Frankenberger, the University Scholars program exemplifies the changes that are occurring at UT Pan American as it develops into a comprehensive university.
"The main motivation for starting the program involved the general transition of this institution from one that was focused on a dual mission - providing open access and a commitment to quality degree programs - to moving toward increasing emphasis on academic excellence," Frankenberger said.
The special assistant to the president, whose main responsibility is to build partnerships for the university with public schools and community colleges in the region, said that though UTPA has in recent years developed some quality academic programs, especially in engineering, the sciences and technology, and health sciences, "many Valley constituents were still overlooking the institution because those programs haven't existed for very long."
Through University Scholars, UT Pan American is reaching out to talented students in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties in the Rio Grande Valley who, by the time they graduate from high school, have: • completed 12 hours of Advanced Placement and/or UTPA Concurrent Enrollment credit (four separate exams or courses) with a "B" average, or
• completed 6 hours of AP or CE credit (from two separate exams or courses) with a "B" average and have an ACT composite score of 24 (at least 19 English and 19 Math) or SAT composite score of 1110 (at least 500 Verbal and 500 math).
Eligible students must be entering freshmen and must qualify for Texas resident tuition.
"The University Scholars program is a fairly high profile mechanism for achieving two ends - one is our own emphasis on academic quality and then our commitment to helping the public schools improve the quality there," said Frankenberger. "I think that we are as pleased with the program fulfilling that second objective as we are with it bolstering our own academic programs.
"The sudden growth of Advanced Placement programs is not due just to University Scholars, but the program has certainly helped motivate students to try to set higher goals for themselves and to try to reach those goals through some very difficult academic programs in the high schools."
UT Pan American has been instrumental in the growth of AP programs in the Valley in several ways, Frankenberger noted.
In addition to revising its own AP policies and accepting more credit from high quality academic programs taught in the high schools, the university has been "providing a training opportunity for talented high school teachers to become familiar with the AP courses and to be able to teach them," he said. "That's been done as a joint effort between us and the College Board, which develops the AP exams."
Since 1995, when UT Pan American began offering summer AP institutes for teachers, the program has grown from three small institutes that drew 47 teachers that first year to 18 institutes and more than 500 participants last summer. Such growth is "shocking - pleasing and shocking," Frankenberger said with a smile.
"We couldn't be happier with the dual effect - having a positive influence on the school community and a very positive effect on our own academic community."
As Frankenberger developed the University Scholars program, he found that, had the program started a year earlier, only five entering freshman applicants would have met the requirements for the Distinguished Achievement Scholarship and, of those five, only two enrolled in the university - "and they matriculated in one of our highest profile academic programs, the UTPA/Baylor College of Medicine Premedical Honors College."
"This year, we had 22 applicants for the scholarship, and of those 22, 19 accepted and matriculated," he said. Frankenberger said that the students who qualify for the University Scholars' Distinguished Achievement Scholarship almost always receive other types of scholarships, as well.
"The University Scholars award by some measures could be considered a very modest award, since it is only tuition and fees, which amounts to about $2,500 a year," he noted. "However, the average annual award for our University Scholars is $7,114, so we had several scholars receiving more than $10,000 a year in combined scholarship and other aid.
"And that is really important since all regional universities in Texas are such good higher education bargains. The basic educational costs for our state institutions is about $8,500 - that's about $2,500 in tuition and fees, about $1,000 for books and supplies, and then $5,000 to maintain a second household somewhere," he noted. "Regional universities cut off that most costly apartment/room and board expense, and the remaining basic educational cost of $3,500 is affordable for almost any Texas citizen.
"A $4,000 scholarship at this institution puts students in a 'no-out-of-pocket-expenses' situation," Frankenberger noted. "That's not true if they go off to school."
Thanks to Texas' system of regional universities ("You have to look very carefully to find any place in this state that is not served by a four-year institution," Frankenberger said), going to college doesn't necessarily mean "going off to college" any more.
The challenge for UT Pan American, as for all regional universities in the state, is to let the people in the region know about its quality academic programs and its opportunities for financial assistance.
"We're further along in quality development than most people in the Valley know," Frankenberger said. "When teachers come on campus (for AP training and other workshops), the constant refrain is 'We had no idea what's been happening at this institution.' So it's not a matter of getting there anymore; we are there - we're not at the final point, we'll continue to develop programs, but I think the foreseeable future will be more about the flowering of the programs we currently have in place."
Despite the fact that the university has many quality programs already in place, Frankenberger said the public is still in a learning curve.
"We have to wait for the catch-up time - for everybody to recognize how much ground we've already gained," he said.
Frankenberger talks with enthusiasm about the changes that have taken place at UT Pan American in recent years.
"This is really the most exciting period that I've seen, and I've been at the institution for parts of four decades," he noted. "No institution remains static, so it is always changing, but this is clearly the most dramatic and dynamic and exciting change for those of us who have been around a long time."
An indication that UTPA is becoming a major state institution is the fact that the university is already 10th in Texas in the numbers of AP scores received (just behind Rice University), said Frankenberger, who credits the University Scholars program.
"I think we have seen the appeal of the University Scholars program," he said. "If we continue to develop the quality programs that will compete with institutions upstate and then assure students that they are going to be in an academically challenging environment and provide them with even modest financial incentives -that is, modest by other standards - then we'll have success in attracting them."
To underscore the influence that quality academic programs have in attracting the top students, Frankenberger noted that of the first 19 University Scholars, eight are in the engineering program, and another four are pre-med majors.
"Clearly, those two are high-visibility academic programs, and we got students who were not otherwise interested in us," he said, adding that some of the students had not even sent UTPA their test scores. "But once they visited the campus, found out about the programs and then realized they had access to these kinds of merit awards, their minds were changed."
Developing a support system - and defining just what it means to be a University Scholar - has been a major aim for Frankenberger during the program's first semester.
"We are trying to 'grow' these ideas," he noted. "I meet with the University Scholars, advise them, connect them with faculty advisors in their departments....That is putting some substance to the designation of University Scholar."
And Frankenberger is already looking to the 1999-2000 academic year.
"I hate to predict," he said, "but I think we have the potential of having 30 to 50 University Scholars applicants next year."
The Inaugural Class of UTPA University Scholars
Yara Aguilar, Engineering, Edinburg North
Nancy Anzaldua, Dietetics, South Texas Health Academy
Claudia Cajiri, Biology, Edinburg
Erin Carroll, Engineering, Edinburg North
Amanda Garza, Biology/Pre-med, Mission
Roberto Gonzalez, Biology/Pre-med, Edinburg North
Jennifer Guerra, Speech, Edinburg North
Kelley Heller, Engineering, Mission
Canuto Martinez Jr., Engineering, PSJA
Jesus Montanez, Engineering, PSJA
Mayra Munoz, Biology/Pre-med, Edinburg
Pablo Peña, Engineering, South Texas Science Academy
Hugo Rincon, Engineering, PSJA Memorial
Heriberto Rios, Spanish, Edinburg North
Jaime Salazar, History, Nikki Rowe (McAllen)
Luis Solis, Accounting, Nikki Rowe (McAllen)
Maricela Solis, Interdisciplinary Studies, Edinburg North
Rafael Tapia, Engineering, Edinburg North
Lizbeth Treviño, Interdisciplinary Studies, Edinburg North