Bringing a Top University to the Valley


Cindy Casares Portrait

A version of this story ran in the May 2013 issue.

The proposed merger of three University of Texas campuses in the Rio Grande Valley has far-reaching financial implications. You should be rooting for the Texas Legislature to pass a bill that would combine the campuses of the University of Texas-Brownsville, University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, operated by the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. The new institution would provide educational opportunities to a long underserved region at a time when ignoring the need for higher education in the Valley could soon burden the state’s economy.

The stakes for Texas’ economy are high. Steve Murdock, the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and ex-state demographer, has estimated that undereducated Hispanics could cost Texas $11.4 billion annually in lost tax revenue by 2050. Alternatively, closing the earning gap between Anglos and minorities, he said, could, by 2050, increase average annual household income in Texas by $16,000. The solution: better education for Texas’ minority population. The Rio Grande Valley, where roughly 90 percent of the residents are Hispanic, is the place to start. As UT-Pan Am President Robert S. Nelsen told the Observer in March, “If we don’t get it right in South Texas, we don’t get it right in this nation and we especially don’t get it right in this state.”

Hispanics now comprise a majority of the kids in Texas public schools, and Nelsen says they make up 89 percent of the student body at UT-Pan Am.

Still, only 4.6 percent of all Texas Hispanics were enrolled in college in 2011, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That’s compared to 7 percent of African-Americans and 5.6 percent of Anglos.

That could soon change. The bill to create a premier university in the Valley won unanimous support from the Texas House and easily passed the Senate but hasn’t yet won final passage.

The new institution would remain part of the University of Texas system and would become eligible for funds from a public endowment called the Permanent University Fund. The new university could also access the $50 million Institute for Transformational Learning, a part of the University of Texas System that bills itself as “promoting innovation” and funds online learning programs throughout the UT System.

Nelsen says that technology is a big part of the merged university’s future. “We’ve thought a lot about virtual classrooms. We’re doing more and more online and hybrid classes because of the great demand.” Online courses can be especially beneficial for working students or students who have children.

This year the school added masters of business administration and masters of public administration programs to four others already online, and the school has plans to do the same next year for special education and nursing programs.

The merger brings with it the plan to create a long-sought medical school at the Harlingen campus. “If you look at what happened at the UT Health Center San Antonio,” Nelsen said, “in 22 years, it generated over $18 billion in economic impact. Just creating a $98 million science building will have a $134 million impact. It will bring 125 extra jobs to the Valley.” That’s welcome news, because one downside to the merger is the loss of some jobs at the merging schools. UT-Brownsville recently notified about 250 employees that they no longer will have a job come August.

The newly formed university will also get access to a University of Texas funding program that provides allotments to attract top teaching talent.

All of which could lead the new university to become an emerging research facility. “I think this merger is an economic engine for the Valley and for the state,” Nelsen told me. It’s a long-overdue investment in higher education in one of the state’s most ignored areas—and hopefully will provide Texas an economic boost. If the bill passes, the merged university would be a win for the Valley and potentially a win for the rest of the state too.