Longtime University of Texas at Brownsville President Juliet García — currently focused on creating a new academic institute in South Texas — is proposing two innovative ways to increase retention and completion among at-risk college students: offering them Section 8-like housing assistance and tying their federal financial aid to on-campus jobs.
But both initiatives require changes to U.S. law, which is why García is in Washington, D.C., this week trying to drum up interest. Without support in the nation's capital, the proposals have little chance of becoming reality.
"If I can take care of those two things, a job and housing, then I can think about Shakespeare and Cervantes and everything else," García said. "But if I'm worried about my children or my home or my job, then I can't even get to those."
García publicly presented her ideas at The Texas Tribune Festival late last month. You can listen here:
Her first proposal calls for creating more on-campus jobs for students, which she said could be done by tying a portion of students' Pell Grants, the federal need-based financial aid program, to work done on campus.
The second calls for creating a federal housing assistance program specifically for students on college campuses.
In an interview with the Tribune this week, García cited research showing that students who worked part time on campus — particularly those who worked in labs or environments that brought them into close contact with faculty — tended to have higher grades and graduate sooner.
UT-Brownsville, where the majority of graduates receive Pell Grants, already requires professors to include student jobs in their research grant proposals, and has mandated that all part-time jobs on campus go to students. But even with those changes, García said, the campus can only create jobs for around 5 percent of the student population.
"It's impactful, but not scaled," she said. "So how can you scale it up really big? The biggest chunk of money that comes to us is Pell money. That is the biggest carrot that I have of current dollars that I could repurpose in some way toward what we believe is a more effective model for student success. If I could repurpose Pell, I'd impact 70 percent or so of our students."
Tom Lindsay, the director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, said García's proposal "keeps students more engaged, increases graduation rates and improves grades. I think it is all to the good."
But Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst with the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan D.C.-based public policy think tank, said, "I would be wary of adding strings" to Pell Grants.
García said she isn't pushing to transform the entire Pell program at once. Rather, she hopes such a strategy could be piloted in the Rio Grande Valley. A proposal to do that at UT-Brownsville was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education last year but ultimately did not move forward.
This week, García is in Washington with Guy Bailey, the president of the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, the new university being born out of the merger of UT-Brownsville and the University of Texas-Pan American. They're pushing to try such a pilot at that new institution.
This may be an interesting time to make their case. The federal aid program is under the microscope in Washington, with some lawmakers proposing cutting it significantly to make room for other priorities in the budget.
"There is a colossal battle going on over Pell Grant funding and how valuable Pell Grants are," U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who supports increasing the program's funding, said in an interview.
García is also particularly interested in meeting with the congressman's brother, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, about her second proposal — to create subsidized housing options for students on campus.
UT-Brownsville currently only has one dorm that houses about 400 students. Like working on campus, living on campus has been shown to improve student engagement and outcomes. And while interest among UT-Brownsville students for more on-campus housing is strong, most cannot afford it.
"We have lots of land for developing, and we have lots of students," García said. "So we have a market, but not a market that can pay the prices developers need to make their own profit in that partnership.
While subsidies could change that equation, García said she does not want to detract from the local community's existing supply of Section 8 housing. "If I go and compete with the Brownsville Housing Authority, I can probably get those slots," she said. "But then I've taken them away from people in Brownsville."
A spokesman for the federal Housing and Urban Development office said he couldn't comment on the proposal until there were more details and more extensive vetting.
García said her proposals could provide a one-two punch that would address some of the major challenges that students face when trying to navigate higher education — particularly male students, whose participation and success trail their female counterparts.
Though she has stepped down from her post as the university president after more than two decades, García is not leaving higher education or the University of Texas System. She will take over as the head of a new entity called the UT Institute of the Americas. She is currently in the midst of a year of development as she determines what the institute will do and how it will operate.
Its future may include putting forward proposals such as the ones she is pushing in D.C. this week.
"I'm not ready yet to constrain the mission or vision of it, but is there a need for convening discussions of this kind across states and across borders in the Americas?" she said. "There is."
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.