EDINBURG - Carmen Rincon and her brother, Hugo, may be just two of 11,500 students at The University of Texas-Pan American. But they represent a growing trend of students nationwide who are getting a headstart on college before graduating high school.
Thanks to Advanced Placement (AP) tests, concurrent enrollment and the UTPA University Scholars program, the Pharr-San-Juan-Alamo Memorial graduates will receive their college degrees sooner than the customary four or five years.
Already a junior, Hugo, 20, is majoring in mechanical engineering during his second year at UTPA. Carmen, a first-year student, is a biology major in the UTPA/Baylor College of Medicine Premedical Honors College.
"High school students should take advantage of concurrent enrollment and AP courses because they help you with your freshman courses," said Carmen, 18. "And if you get the hours out of the way, you have more time to take your sophomore courses, which put you on a faster pace to graduate."
Both Hugo and Carmen are University Scholars. Started in 1998, the program allows entering freshmen from Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties the opportunity to receive a four-year tuition and fees Distinguished Achievement Scholarship and designation as a University Scholar.
To qualify, a student must have a "B" average in 12 hours of AP or concurrent enrollment credit from four separate exams or courses in different subjects. Or, a student can have a "B" average in six hours of AP or concurrent enrollment credit and a minimum composite ACT score of 24 or minimum composite SAT score of 1110.
In just two years, the University Scholars program has grown tremendously. Fifty-five of the 75 applicants were accepted this year, a 189 percent jump from the 19 of 22 applicants approved a year earlier.
Genese Lamare, a 19-year-old pre-med student in the UTPA/Baylor College of Medicine Premedical Honors College, is also a University Scholar. She wrestled with three other schools offering soccer scholarships before deciding UTPA's offer was too good to pass up.
"Everything has been great so far," said Lamare, a biology major. "I think I'm getting everything I need to eventually get where I want to go (Baylor University). I miss playing soccer, but I think about where I'll be four years from now, and I don't regret a thing."
The Premedical Honors College is operated by UTPA and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to provide rigorous undergraduate educational experiences in preparation for medical school. Its overall goal is to increase the number of physicians practicing in the medically underserved region of South Texas.
With 35 credit hours, Lemare already is a sophomore after just one regular semester. She took several AP courses at McAllen Memorial High School and passed corresponding exams in English and history.
Then, with the help of her father, James - a former dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UTPA - Lemare applied for and was accepted to the University Scholars program. Coupled with the honors college scholarship, her education costs are essentially covered.
"I'd tell (high school students) to take as many AP classes and tests as you can," Lamare said. "I only took a few, and I wish I had taken more. Every credit you can get helps."
According to Earl (Bud) Frankenberger, interim vice president for enrollment and student services, the University Scholars program is the summit of a pyramid designed to attract high-performing students to UT Pan American. Its base is an increase in admissions standards and the TEXAS Scholars program.
"We're in a transition position, leaving a period when we were not known for a high-caliber academic reputation and entering a period which we are," Frankenberger said.
"We have quality academic programs that have been developed so quickly here that they are sometimes overlooked. Academically talented students who used to be looking past the Valley or out of the Valley for quality education are now recognizing UTPA."
Beginning in 1995, admissions requirements were changed so prospective UTPA freshmen without college preparatory coursework had to graduate in the top 50 percent of their class. Three years later, the requirement was increased to placing in the top quarter.
In 1993, 515 of the total 2,085 entering freshmen at UTPA, or 25 percent, completed college preparation courses in high school, University statistics show. That percentage has steadily risen, with 75 percent (1,307 of 1,746) of entering freshmen last fall having taken college preparation courses.
Complementing college preparation courses is the Texas Scholars program, a collection of incentives and strategies aimed at motivating students to obtain the state recommended high school degree. Twenty-four of the Rio Grande Valley's 28 school districts now have the program in place, with positive results.
For 1994-95, 42 percent of students in a seven-county region that includes Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties graduated with an advanced seal, slightly above the 41 percent state average. Four years later, 53 percent of the region's students obtained an advanced seal, while the state average rose to 44 percent.
Advanced Placement, which enables students to earn college credit for courses taken in high school, is the next pyramid level, Frankenberger said. Credit is awarded based on scores achieved on standardized final examinations.
Currently, UTPA is second only to UT Austin in the UT System for receiving AP scores from prospective students and awarding AP credit to entering freshmen. As of February, UTPA ranked seventh in Texas in top AP scores, Frankenberger said.
For the Rincons, Carmen fulfilled her six-hour language requirement by passing the Spanish AP test, and she received another five hours from concurrent enrollment. Hugo received 15 hours of credit through Advanced Placement and college preparatory work.
"This has really helped me, especially the concurrent enrollment," Carmen said. "You get the experience of what college is like so you can be better prepared. You also can get ahead in your hours toward graduation."
For more information about Advanced Placement, concurrent enrollment and/or the University Scholars program, contact the UTPA Office of Enrollment and Student Services at 956/381-2100.