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Middle Rio Grande Border Communities Seek Opportunity To Grow Under New University System

State lawmakers have filed bills seeking to transfer the management of Sul Ross and its satellite campuses, including Rio Grande College, from the Texas State University System to the Texas A&M System.

By María Méndez, Texas Public Radio

Laura Torres didn’t plan to study in her hometown of Del Rio. She had gone to the University of South Carolina for a teaching program, but then got pregnant and moved back to the border city of Del Rio in 2018.

She’s determined to continue her education and enrolled at the Rio Grande College, an upper-level branch of Sul Ross State University in West Texas serving the Middle Rio Grande region with satellite campuses.

But it’s been a challenge, she said, and not just as a single mother.

“It’s been really, really hard,” she said. “Starting from administration, all the way to like even registering for classes.”

She said there are fewer resources at RGC’s campuses in Del Rio, Eagle Pass and Uvalde compared to Sul Ross’ full-fledged university campus in Alpine.

The Alpine campus “boasts a beautiful 93-acre main campus of exquisitely-detailed buildings,”  Sul Ross’ website notes. But in the predominantly Hispanic Middle Rio Grande area, the university offers upper-level and graduate classes in partnership with Southwest Texas Junior College, which owns the campus buildings.

Torres said that means RGC students miss out on resources offered in Alpine such as child care or its library. The junior college has a library and students can request library materials from Alpine, but it takes two to three weeks to receive them, she said.

“There’s just so many little things,” she said. “You can just tell that they’re neglecting this area, this region, in various ways.”

Community frustration is growing. State lawmakers representing the area have filed bills seeking to transfer the management of Sul Ross and RGC from the Texas State University System to the Texas A&M System. Last week, the Rio Grande College faculty senate passed  a resolution endorsing the legislative efforts, citing resource and enrollment troubles.

“It's very rewarding here, but it's a very, very challenging environment because we just don't have resources,” said Michael Ortiz, the faculty senate president and an RGC associate professor of mathematics based out of Uvalde.

As a state employee, he said he can’t lobby for or against bills, but said he would like to see improvements.

Enrollment has declined over the last 20 years, particularly in Alpine, Ortiz said.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board  notes enrollment has dropped from more than 1,000 in 2010 to around 900 in 2020 and projects for it to remain around 946 students through 2035.

That’s despite the steadier enrollment at the Southwest Texas Junior College, which is projected to grow from 6,377 in 2020 to 6,731 in 2035. Ortiz notes that the junior college may attract some different students, such as those only seeking a technical education, but he’s still worried about RGC’s enrollment.

“I think that we could and should be seeing much more growth in this region,” he said. “We should be more attractive to students who would be willing to stay in their communities to go to university than we currently are.”

He’s referring to students like Torres, who first left Del Rio to pursue a dental assistant degree in San Antonio. She later attended the University of South Carolina when she struggled to find a job in Del Rio. She wants her daughter to have better options to study in her hometown.

“I want a better future for her,” Torres said. “I don't want to leave or or be like, ‘I want to study this, but they don't have it here, so I have to leave,’ like I did.”

Local elected officials in Del Rio and Eagle Pass, who have expressed support for changing the university’s system management, also feel the area could see more economic growth with improved higher education.

In Del Rio, Mayor Bruno Lozano said residents are “thirsty” for education, but many leave to pursue it elsewhere and don’t come back.

“We have a bleeding of talent that's leaving,” Lozano said. “And then we also have on the flip side, you know, industry wants to invest in a community that has programs and offerings.”

At the same time, some local positions in fields like the medical industry go unfilled because outsiders don’t want to move to the area, Lozano said.

With improved local higher education, he said he thinks they would have the opportunity to grow and take advantage of the Laughlin Air Force Base and maquiladoras across the border in Ciudad Acuña.

Texas State University System spokesman Mike Wintemute acknowledged enrollment at the Alpine campus has dropped, but he said the RGC campuses saw a 12% increase in enrollment from 2019 to 2020.

“The leadership of the university and the leadership of the system recognize that there were challenges related to enrollment in recent years, and that is one of the reasons President Gallego was brought in to address some of those challenges,” he said.

Pete Gallego, a former state and U.S. representative for the area, took over as Sul Ross president last year. While in the Legislature, Gallego said he was the person responsible for the state investments in building the satellite RGC campuses with Southwest Texas Junior College. The idea was to offer the region an affordable education.

“These are communities that I know well,” he said. “I'm very excited about creating even more opportunities for young people in those areas to go to school and to live their dreams.”

Today, the university is actively recruiting by offering incentives and scholarships to prospective students such as federal employees, he said.

Gallego also said he canceled the construction of a building in the Alpine campus to invest in other areas such as technology, spending “close to $1 million” on addressing WiFi and technology concerns at the RGC campuses.

But leasing facilities from the junior college means the university can’t just make changes, Wintemute said.

“We don't have the ability to go in and for example, rebuild structures or replace structures in the same way that you might see at Sul Ross State University's Alpine campus or, or other institutions in our system,” he said referring to an agreement with the junior college.

Still, the junior college and Sul Ross are looking to expand with another building in the Middle Rio Grande area through a legislative request for a bond backed by tuition revenue.

“The idea is to co-locate, so that we'll build the academic part, because we can use state appropriated revenue for that, and the junior college will come in and build the things that we can't build,” Gallego said.

Ultimately, the university is in the hands of the Legislature, he said.

“We will do whatever the Legislature asks,” he said. “All I can tell you is, from my perspective… we have a great relationship with the Texas State System, and they've been very supportive of our efforts.”

State Rep. Eddie Morales, who  filed one of the bills seeking the transfer, said he would be happy for Gallego to remain as president, but wants the Texas A&M System to take over.

“I consider him an asset and I would hope that A&M were to keep him onboard if we were to join A&M,” he said.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who  filed the senate version, said they picked Texas A&M because of the success institutions have seen under its system in cities such as Laredo and Kingsville.

“The problem is that the administration simply cannot turn this ship around, and we've got a sinking ship. We've got to be able to do something better for it,” he said.

Wintemute said change takes time, but the Texas State University System is “100% committed” to continuing to grow all Sul Ross campuses and giving students the experience “they deserve.”

The A&M System said in a statement it has not taken a position on the bills, which have stalled in the Legislature for now. But Gutierrez said they will keep pushing for change in a different session or under a different university system.

“I'm going to stick to it,” Gutierrez said. “Whether it's a one session approach, or it's a two session approach, we're going to keep moving forward.”