Diana Natalicio

February 2008By Comments

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 able to pay a loan back. They’re very afraid of a $10,000 debt. This is big money—you know, you don’t have health insurance in your family, and you’re part of the income stream, so you start college, you’ve got talent, you’ve got motivation, but life keeps throwing barriers into your path, which is why your confidence to step out and borrow money is really not very high. And for us to kind of impose our value set and say “No, it’s okay, you go ahead and borrow” is kind of irresponsible. We have to be careful about that. It’s easy for us to say that $10,000 isn’t much, but for a family that’s struggling to pay off some emergency room bills, it’s hard. This is why we’re doing a lot more to educate students in financial literacy—trying to help them understand, for example, that if you are a junior in engineering and you’re doing well, you’re probably going to graduate within the next two or two and a half years, so you may want to consider borrowing money, even though this hasn’t had any appeal to you or your family. And that a student loan is different from a consumer loan: When you graduate, you’re going to be able to go out and earn $65,000 or $70,000 a year and pay it back. If you’re a freshman and you haven’t figured out how you’re going to adapt to a university and manage work and all the rest of it, borrowing may be a bit higher risk.

When tuition deregulation came up a few years back, it had to have been a mixed bag for you. On the one hand, you’d like more resources to serve students, but on the other hand, you can’t price the university out of the market.

That’s exactly right. The problem for us is that we get caught in the squeeze. As state support tails off, institutions like Austin and Dallas can increase tuition to close the gap. We have a conscience about our students’ ability to pay, because we know these students and the situations they’re in, and we just can’t bring ourselves to raise tuition. I look at UT-Dallas with envy. I wish we could have tuition at that level, because we have to compete for the same faculty.

Affordability comes at a cost.

That’s right. If we can’t compete for top-notch faculty who are going to do research, who are going to have doctoral students, who are active professionally, our undergraduate students will get an education, but it won’t be the kind that will enable them to compete with their counterparts from universities considered to be cutting-edge. If we’re going to give students access, we owe it to them to give a quality education, not just a good-enough education.

Let’s talk about your graduation rate.

Yeah. That’s one of my favorite topics. I’ve decided to take it on because I really don’t like the way it’s calculated. First of all, what’s our mission? It’s to provide opportunities for education, prepare a workforce, and contribute to economic development and quality of life in the region. Basic stuff. We do that through enrollment and degrees awarded, about three thousand each year. So what’s the issue? Well, we’ve ranked for years in the top five among all universities in the number of degrees awarded to Hispanics, but our graduation rates are reported to be low. Why? Because 70 percent of our graduates aren’t counted in the calculation. Why is that? Because only those students who are first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen enrolled in the fall semester and graduate from the same university four, five, or six years later are counted.

If you graduate in eight years—

You don’t get counted. If you’re talking about graduation rate, that’s the arbitrary standard: four, five, or six. In addition to that, if you are a transfer student, a part-time student, a returning student, or someone who happens to start in the spring, you don’t ever get into the calculation.

This is not a problem necessarily related to UTEP, right? If I enroll at Harvard for two years and then I have a financial challenge and my family can’t afford it and I drop out and transfer to the State University of New York and I graduate with honors from SUNY, what happens?

You count against Harvard. And you don’t count for SUNY.

It’s as if I never graduated.

You’re a dropout.

You sound like Mack Brown. If you go to Mack and you say, “Why is the graduation rate for the football team so low?” he says that it’s not that his players are flunking out—sometimes he has students transfer, for instance. The metrics for calculating the graduation rate are at least partly what troubles the athletic department.

Bingo. Really, the metaphor is trains. There’s an express train—this would be Princeton or Caltech. You get on your express train with your class and you ride. And four years later, 80 or 90 percent of you get off with a diploma. Then there’s UTEP, a commuter train. We stop at every station. Every semester the train stops, and people get on and get off. They transfer in from other schools. They transfer in from the community college. They transfer in from the military.

The military! You have people who come to Fort Bliss, enroll in school, and then go off and serve their country, and, therefore, they may not be able to finish in four or five or six years. And they don’t count. A perfect example of what a screwy system this is.

Right! It’s really ridiculous. And so the result of that is that we end up with a high number of degrees awarded but a really low graduation rate because most of the people we graduate don’t get calculated.

In addition to its being a flawed system, what’s not being taken into account is that schools with the most-challenging enrollees are suffering for their noble stance. A school like UTEP is asking to get screwed by this formula.

Absolutely. There is very little we can do, short of denying admission to students who aren’t first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen with a wad of cash, to improve our graduation rate.

Final question: Again looking ahead ten years, what are the three things you’d like to have for UTEP to ensure your success going forward?

The first thing is a better system for financing higher education, one that would truly enable low-income people to have the kind of access that their talent deserves. Any investment in higher education in Texas, particularly in the education of historically underrepresented groups, is going to pay off richly for this state and for this country. Not to make that investment, I think, is extremely shortsighted. And far too much of my time and the energy of this university is devoted to coming up with schemes—all legal, but schemes—to enable young people to get an education. It shouldn’t be this hard, for them or for us.

What else?

A second thing would be more economic development in the El Paso area that would enable well-educated UTEP graduates, particularly engineers, to be employed here. If there were the prospect of an exciting job, whether it’s doing contract work for NASA through Lockheed Martin or some other kind of defense systems work for Fort Bliss, it would enable us to keep within this community our best and brightest young people, who are actually being exported to places like North Dallas and Houston. While I certainly don’t want every UTEP graduate to be employed in El Paso—that would be an unrealistic goal in today’s global economy—I want them to have that option.

And they don’t have that option now.

They don’t. Some of them really do need to continue to help families that are here, and it’s very difficult for them to leave town.

It forces them to make an unpleasant choice. So what’s the third thing?

The third thing I’d wish for would be to be able to attract a growing number of cutting-edge faculty members who would provide the necessary energy and expertise to take us to the next level. Faculty make the university what it is, and we’ve done extremely well in recruiting in the past several years, but we’ve had to work really hard at it.

Are you optimistic about good things coming?

I am. I’m very optimistic about what’s going on in El Paso right now attitudinally. I think UTEP has been, for the past fifteen years or so, a very positive, aggressive, competitive institution, mostly because we were confident that if we invested our time and energy, we would be successful. You have to believe that the odds are with you—otherwise you get discouraged. I think that people are beginning to realize, now that they’ve stopped whining, that we can do whatever it is we set out to do if we work hard enough. Our football coach, Mike Price, has a motto: “Believe.” And it works!

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