Story by Amanda Guillen
Leélo en español
UTEP ranked No. 1 in social mobility for the second year in a row in The Washington Monthly’s annual national college and university rankings. This led the university to receive an overall national No. 7 ranking out of 284 colleges in the nation–sandwiched between No. 6 Stanford and No. 8 Harvard.
The Washington Monthly is a bimonthly nonprofit magazine that focuses on politics and government in Washington D.C.
According to its website, the publication’s mission is to provide truth to the public by believing in American traditions of civic responsibility and giving the average person a break.
Robert Kelchen, assistant professor at Seton Hall University, conducted the university national rankings for The Washington Monthly. Kelchen was adamant when saying that this ranking system does differ from others. “The ranking highlights commitment to serving a broad group of students and working to help them succeed at a low price,” Kelchen says.
Kelchen believes that The Washington Monthly’s rankings will not impact college students who may be looking for prestige or which colleges to attend. “These rankings do more to inform policy than inform students,” Kelchen says. “The Washington monthly rankings are designed to reward colleges who are doing more to serve the public good. For example, the U.S. News rankings are focused much more on the characteristics of the incoming students. These are recruits that are high school seniors with really high ACT or SAT scores and if you did that and have a lot of money to spend, you will do very well in the U.S. News rankings regardless of what these colleges do to actually help these students.”
Measuring the success of a university for The Washington Monthly was primarily sought through graduation rates, comparing a prediction of the graduation rate—by taking location and the makeup of the student body into account—with the actual graduation rate.
“UTEP is serving a large number of low-income students whose success in college was far from guaranteed. Even though the actual graduation rate may not be that high it is better that what we’d expect given the student characteristics,” Kelchen says.
Kelchen said it was important to understand that the graduation rate that is listed on the national ranking—37 percent—only covers about three in 10 students at UTEP. “Graduation rates do not cover a lot of students at UTEP because (it) only (applies to) first-time students that are going full time. This excludes transfer students and part-time students, which there are a lot of at UTEP,” Kelchen says.
Although social mobility was not the only criterion that was taken into consideration for the ranking, this was the only category in which UTEP ranked in the top 10. Kelchen explained that a high score in social mobility can make up for lower scores in research and service, in which UTEP didn’t fare as well.
Social mobility is defined by The Washington Monthly as “recruiting and graduating low-income students.” The publication notes that 67 percent of UTEP students receive federal Pell Grants to attend school. Census data shows that 25 percent of persons in El Paso County live below the poverty level, compared to 17 percent of Texans overall.
Martha Cardona, sophomore pre-business major, has worked to help her financially unstable household since the age of 16. Hard work and a strong vision of a bright future is what Martha, now 20 years old, says has pushed her to see past the hardship and work toward earning her bachelor’s degree.
“When I entered UTEP, I had to keep on working, because if it weren’t for financial aid there is no way that I would have been able to pay for college,” Martha says. “Just because I got financial aid that doesn’t mean that everything I had to pay was paid off, so I kept on working and it has been hard trying to keep that GPA up and having to choose to be involved (with school organizations/activities) or working. Many students have to work while they are in college. It is hard and everyone thinks that it is cheap and you get a lot of financial aid, but people don’t understand that a lot of these students help their parents out, which is my situation.”
Martha also says that by having to grow up at an early age, she discovered that she wanted more than working for minimum wage and experiencing more poverty than what she has endured her entire life. She is grateful to her parents, who always try to give her the best that they can. Although they couldn’t necessarily give her material items, she does say that she never lacked support and love from either of them.
“I don’t blame my parents for coming from a low-income family, I actually thank them, because thanks to them, I am the person I am now and that is what has pushed me even harder to do even greater things,” she says. “I know I have potential, so money has never stopped me from going to school. I know who I am and I know the potential that I have and as soon as I graduate I plan on achieving my goal.”
Martha is one of the estimated 15,400 students at UTEP who receive Pell grants along with other financial aid. She says that although she has struggled the past few years she is grateful to have received this assistance, and thanks UTEP for making an education possible.
Upon graduation, Martha plans on landing a job with a major company like Microsoft. She says she then plans on returning to school and earning her master’s degree in international business. She says her ultimate dream is to become a CEO of a prestigious company, but her most important goal is to overcome the barriers that she says have been put in front of many minorities, lower classes and women in the industry. “You can’t let something like money stop you from becoming that person you want to be,” she says.
UTEP President Diana Natalicio expressed her excitement with this ranking system because it differs from other national rankings, in that it took a different approach to how universities were being ranked, by adding categories such as social mobility, where UTEP ranked number one.
“It was very encouraging to see Washington Monthly develop this alternative and think about ranking in a different way, and to think about what does matter and what is the impact of higher education on this country,” Natalicio says. “When you start asking that question you have to think about large public universities because they are educating far more students than small private universities.”
Natalicio says it is important to recognize that social mobility exactly measures the university’s mission of access and excellence. “You have to have both. It is not just serving low-income students, it is also making sure that the educational experience they have provides them with that competitive edge when they graduate and that is what UTEP does especially well,” she says. “We have access–we are very committed to that–but we are also committed to the idea that once we admit students they have to work hard and we have to work hard to make sure they are ready to go out and compete with anybody, that’s social mobility.”
When looking at the data, it is clear that The University of Texas at El Paso serves a large influx of low-income students. When looking at the location of the university and the city of El Paso’s poverty rate, it easily translates into a large number of local students, who fit into that category and attend UTEP. With UTEP being a commuter campus, a lot of students have been home-grown in El Paso and a majority of them fall under the poverty category.
UTEP political science professor Richard Gutierrez says that a student coming from a low-income background should in no way be looked at as inferior. He also says that this has long been a crutch that the university and its students have leaned on. “Sometimes UTEP uses this as an excuse by claiming that our students are nontraditional, I think we rely way too much on saying our students are poor,” he says. “I think we need to look more at how we can make a difference in their lives, but they have to work at it. I have to work at it as a professor, and the institution has to work at it to provide the students with many opportunities that we can afford on this campus.”
Gutierrez also says UTEP students often underrate themselves and that cultural factors often make it difficult to get them out of that mindset. “You can’t measure them, but we know they do come into play. It is getting students to know that they can move from point A to point B, but that it takes work and effort,” he says. “It can be frustrating because it is not easy. For some it won’t be as difficult, but for others who have to contend with a lot of other issues, it can be.”
Natalicio says the university has made efforts to change the mindsets of students who are plagued by poverty and who believe that their lack of money leads to a lack of obtaining an education. “We have worked really hard, over the past 10 years especially. We worked with the schools and made sure that the students who were coming at least had the readiness to attend a university and to encourage schools that hadn’t been sending us students,” she says. “Graduates of certain high schools in the El Paso area never came, and what we learned early on was that they were being told that they weren’t college material and that was only because they were poor.”
Political science professor Kathleen Staudt says she is excited about the recognition of the university and the opportunities it provides for students. “I’m glad to see alternative criteria and ranking organizations make their analyses visible,” Staudt says. “Traditional ranking systems often overrate schools that mainly admit privileged students or—as former Texas Governor Ann Richards phrased them—people born with a silver spoon in their mouth. In a country that has seen alarming rates of inequality in the last decade or two, social mobility is a worthy factor, among many.”
Junior criminal justice major Emilio Magdaleno says he is glad he chose UTEP when selecting a university. “I think I invested my money really good being here,” he says. “I am close to home and now I know that it is one of the best universities in the state and country.”
For more information on the 2013 National College rankings, visit washintonmonthly.com.