TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — High school seniors who applied to the University of Texas at Austin should know by Sunday whether they made the cut for enrollment in the fall 2020 semester.
Two students at Del Valle High School, who’ve already gotten their acceptance letters, will be relying on the university’s expanded offer of free or reduced tuition for families below certain income thresholds.
The students — both named Justice — have their hearts set on UT, but neither was sure whether the finances would work out.
Justice Gutierrez’s parents “understand the financial part, and they would like to help me as much as they can,” she said, “but, you know, sometimes they can’t.”
UT’s new endowment, a $160 million pledge to provide free tuition to students whose families earn less than $65,000 a year (and “assured tuition support” for families making less than $125,000 a year), gives her hope that she’ll avoid a familial fate.
“My sister, she got accepted to UT, and she wanted to go, she was set on it, but she didn’t have enough financial aid from it,” Gutierrez said. “So she had to go to a different school, and I know that was hard on her because UT was her dream school.”
Like her, Gutierrez’s classmate Justice Warren was already planning to apply for scholarships and other financial aid, but the thought of getting a discount on her degree right at the start is “a lifesaver.”
“Even if everything else goes as wrong as possible, you have this,” she said. “It’ll be okay.”
Opening the door
The two students’ stories are not unique across Texas, or even at their Title I school, a designation that provides additional federal dollars for low-income district.
“You have students who think, ‘I want to go there, but I can’t afford it, so I’m not even going to apply,'” said Dr. Tiffany Spicer, Del Valle ISD’s executive director of secondary academics and student support.
This cycle, UT told KXAN it received more than 57,000 applications from first-time college students for fall 2020, compared to 53,500 for fall 2019.
A UT graduate herself, Spicer works with students throughout the district to make sure they’re prepared for the demands of a post-high school world. She’s proud of her alma mater for tapping into the vast resources afforded by oil and gas leases the university manages to provide extended tuition support.
Two years ago, UT created the Texas Advance Commitment, adding an extra $5 million to an existing pot of $7.5 million to provide financial aid to low-income students. The first phase of the initiative provided free tuition to more than students whose families made up to $30,000 a year and tuition support up to $100,000. More than 4,000 benefited this past academic year, the university said.
By more than doubling the free tuition threshold starting this fall, UT expects to help an additional 8,600 undergraduates earn their degrees; 5,700 more should get a discount.
“That has opened the door for families that would otherwise not consider” UT, Spicer said.
UT told KXAN its median undergraduate family income in the fall of 2018 was under $60,000, meaning more than half of its students would be eligible for free tuition. Nearly 20,000 undergraduates who filed a valid FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) that year received some kind of aid or loans to attend UT.
The Texas Advance Commitment also takes some of the financial stress off of families as they apply for college, said Cheryl Rimes, DVISD’s coordinator for GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a federally-funded program that assigns advisers to follow and assist a single class of students from 7th grade through their first year of college.
Searching and applying for grants and scholarships is another source of strain for families, she said, not to mention the promise of the decades-long burden of student loans.
“We want it to be a positive experience, not like, ‘Oh my God, I’m in debt,'” Rimes said.
Warren feels the pressure of loans even before she’s applied for one. Her brother, who also went to UT, is still paying his off, and she wants to do everything she can to avoid taking any out herself.
But “sometimes, when it comes between that and your dream school, you’re like, just got to go for it,” the future computer science major said. With the new tuition help, “maybe I’ll have a leg up, and maybe I won’t have to burden my parents with the same kind of loans.”
Gutierrez, who plans to study biology on her way to a degree in oncology, has wanted to be a Longhorn since she was young. She hopes the free tuition pledge gives her the opportunity her sister didn’t get.
“If she would have had this back when she was graduating,” Gutierrez said, “she would’ve been so happy that she could take this and go to UT.”