As the premier higher education institution for South Texas, The University of Texas-Pan American is committed to making its academic programs and community services more accessible. And, the University is taking a major step in that direction by expanding its involvement in Starr County.
At the July 18 meeting of the South Texas Community College Board of Trustees, UTPA President Dr. Miguel A. Nevárez made a formal presentation requesting about three-fourths of an acre of the college's property in Rio Grande City to establish facilities. Specifically, two portable buildings with classrooms would be used to provide upper-level courses for residents to obtain undergraduate degrees.
"The people from Rio Grande City would like to have a more permanent presence of UT Pan American there," Nevárez said. "We're committed to this area and the higher education needs of South Texas."
The Board indicated its willingness to approve the UTPA proposal, but no action was taken. Additional meetings and workshops to finalize the details are forthcoming.
"It's a good way to get started, and there's no doubt the need is there," said STCC Trustee Manuel Benavidez Jr., who represents Starr County and western Hidalgo County. "Once you have a presence, there is no denying your enrollment there is going to skyrocket, and you'll be getting students from the neighboring counties, too."
Already, the two institutions have a "2+2" articulation agreement, assuring students that associate degree programs at STCC satisfy the freshman- and sophomore-year requirements of four-year baccalaureate degrees at UTPA. The Texas Legislature last year gave them permission to enter into a similar agreement for Starr County.
UTPA, which has offered education courses in Rio Grande City since 1976, currently does not have a campus in the county but offers upper-level courses in education to about 300 students at Rio Grande City High School. STCC presently offers only entry-level core courses at their Rio Grande City campus, with about 1,200 students per semester.
"We will continue to do there what we're doing already," Nevárez said. "Ideally, it's best to be on the STCC campus, but we're not going to go back on anything we're doing in Starr County. We want to make this easy and convenient for the faculty and students."
Due to funding and authorization requirements, temporary buildings initially will be placed on the STCC site. It also will not be open until at least the spring semester, as there is insufficient time to complete arrangements before the fall semester begins Aug. 26.
"The University of Texas-Pan American sees participation in providing higher education opportunities in Starr County as a critical aspect of its service to the South Texas region," said Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo, UTPA provost/vice president for Academic Affairs.
"We believe the growth in the Rio Grande City/Roma area merits the development of bachelor degree opportunities to residents there. If UTPA is going to be a community partner in assisting local communities, it must extend itself to areas like Rio Grande City/Roma. We believe our involvement will benefit the economic development of the area, as well as the educational achievement of its residents."
This fall, UTPA will offer more than 10 courses in Rio Grande City. And, since fall 2000, general advisement sessions with students have occurred at least once a semester, either at the Rio Grande City school district facilities or at STCC. There is one full-time faculty member and about seven part-time instructors, with more courses expected to be available through distance learning.
"Our short-term goal is to establish an extension center in Starr County that offers upper-level division courses and enables students to enroll with STCC and UT Pan American to earn a bachelor's degree closer to home," Nevárez said. "Our long-term goal is to establish an upper-level general academic institution in Rio Grande City."
Current statutes with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board require a university system center to have a full-time enrollment of at least 3,500 students for four fall semesters before it can be reclassified as an upper-level general academic institution. However, that number can be reduced by the Texas Legislature.
Once fully implemented, UTPA officials said the Starr County program could include undergraduate degrees in fields such as education, English, history and criminal justice, along with some master's degrees.
The Starr County proposal is similar to UTPA's earlier partnership with Texas Southmost College, which eventually became the University of Texas at Brownsville, Nevárez said.