By President Pete P. Gallego
Sul Ross State University
With a “school year like no other” finally behind them, many graduating high school seniors in the Permian Basin and across Texas are facing a challenging transition to college.
Even in “normal” years, it can be hard for 18- and 19-year-olds to leave home for the first time, adjust to the academic rigors of college, and take on the responsibilities and expenses of adulthood. When you add the stress of 2020-2021 — learning remotely, keeping distanced from classmates and teachers, watching family members endure COVID — the upcoming move to campus will be especially daunting.
That’s why Sul Ross State University, where I am both an alumnus and the president, has opened our residence halls this summer for students to live almost for free, and start their coursework early. We are betting that the best way to help students begin post-COVID college life this fall is by having them to campus this summer to get a head start. More than 100 students have signed up.
The residence halls on our Alpine campus usually sit empty in June, July and August even though the university pays for utilities and upkeep. By making them available, we help our students in the short term: they can ease into college with a smaller, summer course load and work closely with academic advisors and professors to manage their time and develop good study habits.
Just as important, we will help them in the long term: they can earn credits before their freshman year even starts, and without worrying about summer housing costs. This will put them on the path towards graduating on time and beginning their careers with lower debt than they might otherwise face.
Sadly, high debt and low graduation rates are the two biggest challenges facing American higher education today. All colleges and universities must focus on addressing those challenges in order to support their students.
That’s especially true at rural universities like Sul Ross. We have four campuses in small communities — Alpine, Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Uvalde — and serve students from across the region and state, including many from Odessa and Midland. Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college. And many qualify for federal Pell Grants for part of their tuition.
We owe it to them to come up with creative ways to keep costs low and help them earn their degrees. That will start by hosting them in our residence halls for the summer.
But it won’t end there.
Drawing on the lessons from COVID, we are also investing in technology to improve distance learning so students can take the courses they need to graduate, even if they are not on the students’ primary campus.
We are eliminating bureaucratic rules that waste students’ time and money. Sul Ross, for example, often threw out clothing that students left in the washers and dryers in residence halls overnight. This year, I heard from a single mother who had to spend money she could not spare on new clothes because her son took too long taking his old clothes from the dryer. So we are changing that.
And if opening residence halls in the summer helps students on the front end of their college careers, we are introducing the new Promise Scholarship to help them on the back end. This aid will go to students with financial need who are within 30 credit hours of completing their degrees, so they don’t drop out so close to the finish line.
Transitioning from high school to college is hard. Doing so after a year of COVID is harder. But by opening up our empty residence halls this summer — and thinking creatively about how to serve our students during all their years on campus – we will make sure they walk across the college graduation stage in four years, just as they did this month in high school.
Pete Gallego is president of Sul Ross State University. He is an Alpine native, a Sul Ross alumnus, and a former member of both the Texas House of Representatives and the United States Congress.