Diana Natalicio

Madame President: Natalicio, photographed on the UTEP campus on December 11, 2007.
Photograph by Artie Limmer

Look ahead ten years and tell me how the University of Texas at El Paso will be different from what it is today.

I think the campus will be larger. We’ll have more students at the graduate level, in particular, because we’re increasing the number of doctoral programs—we have fourteen now, where fifteen years ago we had one. We’re focused primarily on science and engineering in those programs because it reinforces our quest for research funding. At the undergraduate level, we’ll still be undereducated as a region, so ten years out our commitment to access will be firm. We have to continue to try to provide opportunities for all the people who are showing up, primarily from Mexico, with very little in the way of an educational background. It’s not their fault; they come from rural areas. If they’re going to be a part of the future, we’ve got to educate them.

Your total enrollment is about 20,000 students now, and you’re talking about an increase of 10,000. By when?

I would say 2020, approximately. Because of our population growth and Fort Bliss’s growth. And graduate programs that attract people from outside the area.

Do you have enough space for that many more students?

What will change is the way in which we teach. A lot more will be done online and in hybrid formats, where people don’t come to the campus every day, where they have meetings with faculty members but do a lot of their work online. We’re also establishing a presence at Fort Bliss—

A satellite campus.

Exactly. Together with a community college, we’re occupying space at the base. And because this is a very dispersed geographic area, we do a lot of our master’s courses for teachers and a lot of our undergraduate courses for prospective teachers out in the Lower Valley, on the far east side of the city. We use a school building for that purpose on a community college campus.

Tell me about the kinds of kids who are enrolling. I want to understand the profile of a typical UTEP student—if there is such a thing—versus, say, a typical UT-Austin student.

Most of our students are the first in their families to go to college. Most are low-income. Most are employed while they go to school, not only to pay for their studies but to help contribute to the family revenue stream. Most live at home.

How many students live on campus?

About 450 out of 20,000.

That’s about 2 percent—a startlingly low percentage. Though I suppose it does take a huge responsibility off your shoulders.

Yes. I wish we had more of that responsibility, because the experience of living away from home is a very good one for students, but they can’t afford it. Poverty is a terrible thing. It closes doors to opportunities. We try to provide financial aid so students can participate in study abroad—we have programs in Italy and London, for instance—but we have to come up with creative ways of doing it.

Where do your students come from?

More than 91 percent are from this area: We get just over 82 percent from El Paso County and 8.5 percent from Mexico.

That 8.5 percent from Mexico translates to 1,700 students who commute?

Yeah. There are many other Mexican students commuting to El Paso, including to private high schools and community colleges. But UTEP gets the biggest chunk.

Nearly 73 percent of your student body is Mexican American?

Right.

That’s the highest Mexican American enrollment of any university in the country?

No, of any research university in the country.

That’s compared with less than 40 percent Mexican American enrollment thirty years ago.

You can see what’s happened. We were an Anglo university; now we’re definitely mirroring the demographics.

Only 2.8 percent African American? And that percentage has remained constant over the years.

Yes. That’s almost exactly the black population of El Paso. The African American population is the most affluent and best-educated segment of the city, because it’s mostly retired military families. So we kind of look like El Paso! Which is what we set out to do.

You gave out more than $8 million in scholarships last year.

Right. We’ve worked hard to raise the amount of money we have on an annual basis to award in scholarships. But since tuition has gone up, we have to pay more per student in order to make them competitive. As a result, fewer students are getting them. That means I have to go out and raise more money.

We all know that university presidents are fund-raisers—

Yes, we do. Presidents are people who live in mansions and beg for a living, as they say.

So tell me if it’s a good time to be raising money earmarked for financial aid?

It’s a very good time. El Pasoans with resources—and UTEP alumni—are enormously enthusiastic about investing in students’ education. It’s a huge return. We have a scholarship luncheon once a year where we bring donors and recipients together. I tell you, it’s wonderful to see these gatherings. The donors have such a sense of satisfaction. They can hear the story of a kid who’s struggled financially, and they can see how that kid has benefited.

How many UTEP students are on financial aid?

Just over 15,000 in 2005—06.

That’s 75 percent. And their average family income is only $30,000. Wow.

If you were to look at the average family income of someone receiving financial aid at UT-Austin or UT-Dallas, it would probably be greater.

And yet the cost of fifteen semester credit hours at UTEP is nearly $2,900—only $1,300 lower than it is at UT-Austin and $1,200 lower than at UT-Dallas. The difference in the average family’s income is great, but the difference in the cost of going to UTEP is not that great.

It’s a huge challenge. And if you couple that with loan aversion . . .

By which you mean?

People need to have confidence that they’ll be

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