AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A Texas resident attending the University of Texas at Austin pays more than $10,000 a year in tuition. And keep in mind that doesn't include room and board. That number alone is disqualifying for many prospective Longhorns. But that could be changing. This week, the university approved a sweeping tuition assistance program for in-state students. Starting in 2020, the university will cover the full tuition for students whose families make less than $65,000 a year.
Joining me now is Gregory Fenves. He's the president of the University of Texas, and he's on the line from Austin. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
GREGORY FENVES: Thank you very much, Audie.
CORNISH: Now, the UT system has one of the largest endowments in the country, right? I think it's second to Harvard. So what spurred this move now?
FENVES: Well, we know college affordability is one of the biggest issues facing students considering to go to college and their families. And it has been something we've actually been working on for three or four years here at the University of Texas at Austin. And so this has just been a progression as we've been looking at how to make college affordable for the highly qualified students who come to UT.
CORNISH: Now, Texas has also been in the center of the debate over affirmative action. Is this part of a strategy to improve diversity of the student body without using race-based policies?
FENVES: Well, we have defended the use of race and ethnicity for the educational benefits of diversity in the Supreme Court. But in addition, we know financial considerations are very important for access to the university for students of all backgrounds and from all regions of Texas.
CORNISH: Do you get the sense that this will actually improve racial diversity as well?
FENVES: We will see. This is something that we'll have to see as the years go on about students who apply and the students who decide to come. We just want to make sure that the highly qualified students we do admit - the financial considerations are something that's manageable for them and their families.
CORNISH: How are you thinking of the process beyond admittance, meaning that once students are in, will there be programming to help them survive those four years?
FENVES: Well, I think this is one of the real success stories at the University of Texas over the past four or five years - is we have dramatically increased our retention rates, dramatically increased our graduation rates. And financial aid has been part of that improvement but also what we call wraparound programs, particularly in the first year, where nearly a quarter of our students are first in their families to go to college. And so they need mentoring networks and support networks, and our students have been very successful with the support that we have provided.
CORNISH: Can you talk about a student or a program that you think is a good example of what can work?
FENVES: Yes, I'd be very glad to. Our University Leadership Network is really our premiere approach to helping students, particularly first generation students, students of color. And we have dramatically increased the first year retention rates for those students. And all our data shows that if a student comes back to UT for the second year, they will graduate. And so now our freshman retention rate on average with nearly 8,000 undergraduate students in each class is about 95%.
CORNISH: And challenges going forward?
FENVES: I think the challenges going forward are, as the state of Texas grows and there's more demand for higher education, how the University of Texas can be a model for other institutions in the state for providing this high-quality education and for students to be successful once they are at the university.
CORNISH: Gregory Fenves is the president of the University of Texas. Thank you for speaking with us.
FENVES: Thank you very much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.