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A Path Forward: Unique Programs Address Students' Financial Challenges

Last Updated on February 19, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Originally published February 19, 2018

By Pablo Villa

UTEP Communications

UTEP is the best in the country at moving its graduates from the lowest income quartile to the upper echelons. Now, it is leading the way in efforts to keep students mired in financial struggles enrolled and on track for graduation.

Renee Trejo
Renée Trejo was considering dropping out of college for financial reasons, but with the help of her professor and an on-campus job, she was able to stay in school and is now on track to graduate in May 2018 and start a career as a teacher. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications

Renee Trejo entered a classroom for a final exam in the fall of 2016 well prepared, but with more on her mind than just her studies.

Trejo was nearing the end of the first semester of her junior year at The University of Texas at El Paso. Her academic career as an English major was thriving, but there was tumult off campus.

That year, Trejo said, her father abruptly exited her life, leaving her, along with her mother and younger sister, in a precarious position. Trejo’s father had been the family’s main source of income and her mother hadn’t worked in nearly three decades. His sudden absence sent the three of them reeling into a chasm of financial difficulties that seemed insurmountable.

“When my dad left, it took a big toll on us, financially,” Trejo said. “I didn’t have money to get through that week, much less did I know how I was going to pay for the next semester. I was going to quit school.”

The string of setbacks pushed Trejo near a breaking point after the conclusion of that final essay presentation. The distress soon became known to David Ruiter, Ph.D., associate professor of English.

Ruiter took his student – who began the semester as an active participant before receding into a reserved anguish – aside to discuss the potential for student employment. The news spurred a catharsis for Trejo. She opened up, revealing the troubles afflicting her personal life and the uncertainty that lay ahead. Ruiter offered a lifeline – a job as his teaching assistant. It was a position that offered more professional development than the retail job Trejo held at the time. It also would allow the flexibility to attend classes while still honoring her work commitments. Most importantly, it paid more than the retail job, making the financial burdens her family faced less taxing.

“It was a good and important moment for both of us,” Ruiter said. “I was focused on her terrific writing and communication skills, her leadership qualities, her confidence, and her ability to do work that we needed to accomplish. She had a financial need that needed an immediate intervention. It just so happened that those things came together on that day.”

A little more than a year later, Trejo is in the midst of her final semester. She expects to graduate in May 2018 with a degree in English and hopes to become a teacher. She said it wouldn’t have happened without the additional financial assistance that came from student employment.

“It was a huge weight off my shoulders,” Trejo said. “There’s no way I would be where I am without it.”

Understanding the Challenge

The financial struggles Trejo faced are a common thread among many of UTEP’s 25,078 students.

Among the campus’ undergraduate student population, 32 percent are from families with an annual household income of $20,000 or less. Furthermore, 50 percent are from families in the lowest income quartile (combined annual household income of less than $38,000).

UTEP has been lauded for its ability to help students navigate those financial challenges and vault into the top income quartiles. In 2017, a study released by the Brookings Institution ranked UTEP No. 1 for performing well in both research and social mobility. The study examined the performance of 342 public universities along two value dimensions that are commonly used to justify public investments in them: research productivity and student social mobility. After first identifying the institutions that promote knowledge through research and those that promote social mobility (defined as those with the highest share of students from the bottom 20 percent of U.S. household incomes), the researchers sought to determine which universities perform well in both research and social mobility.

“UTEP is more successful than any other U.S. research university in moving students from the lowest socio-economic quartile to upper-middle and beyond,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio. “So, let’s suppose a student with a household income of $20,000 a year completes a degree and goes on to a job that pays $85,000. That’s a huge step in social mobility, likely to change the life trajectory of that student’s family. Brookings says we do that better than any other research university.

“Although we are already doing a good job of fostering social mobility, there’s always more that can be done, and to that end, we’re working hard to gather and analyze data that help us become more strategic in helping students with their financial challenges.”

During the last three years, approximately 2,800 students did not re-enroll at UTEP because they couldn’t afford to pay the balances they owed to the University. Of this total, 450 students owed less than $500, and 1,100 owed less than $1,000.

Although not colossal, these amounts owed are nonetheless the most common obstacle to student progress toward degree completion, according to President Natalicio. 

“The primary reason students stop or drop out of UTEP isn’t academic. It’s financial,” she explained. “It’s what most of us would consider to be relatively small amounts of money; it’s a $250 brake job, or a broken tooth, or a cost increase in a child’s daycare. So, finding themselves in a financial jam, students consider the big picture — what it is that they can sacrifice, at least temporarily, to get on better financial footing. They think, ‘Maybe what I need to do is drop out of school, work more hours and plan to return to school next semester.’”

But that may not be the best solution over the longer term, President Natalicio said. Her assertion is backed by research conducted by UTEP’s Center for Institutional Evaluation, Research and Planning, or CIERP, throughout the last 12 years. In 2005, CIERP received a grant from the Lumina Foundation to begin developing an analytics structure to provide UTEP with actionable insights that are most likely to improve student success and degree completion.

That research has yielded major insights about the many factors and conditions that affect student success. For example, students who experience one stop-out are more likely to experience subsequent stop-outs. Conversely, continuous enrollment increases the likelihood of degree completion. In addition, managing financial aid, student engagement, and external commitments can increase term-to-term retention and improve timely degree completion.

“We knew keeping students enrolled every term is very important,” said Roy Mathew, Ph.D., associate vice president at CIERP. “A lot of our effort has gone into trying to understand the complex set of factors that determine term-to-term retention. As our work advanced, we shifted our focus from understanding the success of students in terms of risk groups – low, middle and high – to a new model that focuses on understanding the likelihood of success of each student, based on their dynamic characteristics, including finances. Advanced analytics have allowed us to fundamentally change the way we look at student success.”

Paydirt Loan

Master of Social Work student Jessica Morales is grateful for the Paydirt Loan program at UTEP that has helped her get through financial emergencies. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications

Armed with that insight, President Natalicio and University leaders have spent the last decade methodically crafting plans and programs that take into account financial concerns for students and offer them a clearer path to degrees. The approach is four-pronged, with focuses on academic advising, student employment, and financial aid, including the UTEP Promise Grant and the UTEP Paydirt Loan Program.

Extending beyond traditional support services such as food pantries, emergency loans and book programs, the Paydirt Loan is a unique effort that provides eligible UTEP students with an immediate short-term loan of up to $500 for unexpected situations. Heidi Granger, assistant vice president for student financial services, said the program has been in place for two years. In that span, 174 students have applied for the short-term loan, which is funded by donors. Granger said the top four reasons students request the loans are to pay utility bills, rent, food and car repairs.

She added that 70 percent of students who requested the loan paid it back within the 90-day time frame. Of the total number of Paydirt Loan users, 18 percent are repeat requestors, Granger said.

One of those students is Jessica Morales. Morales found herself in a financial bind in fall 2016. She lived with her fiancé, who was also a student, and the couple did not have enough money on hand to pay rent.

Morales, who graduated with her bachelor’s in social work in May 2017 and is currently a Master of Social Work candidate, is a frequent visitor to the financial aid website. She happened upon the Paydirt Loan Program while checking the status of her spring 2017 financial aid package and was immediately intrigued.

“When we had emergencies before, we would tend to fall on payday loans,” Morales said. “But sometimes, since we’re work-study employees, they won’t take that as a valid check. When I saw the Paydirt Loan, I applied for it right away.”

Morales said the process to receive the money is simple. She added that it’s easy to pay back the loan with a little financial planning. She has applied for it every semester since.

“I’m beyond grateful,” Morales said of the program. “When that emergency comes around, it’s a huge relief.”

Student Engagement and Employment

Along with offering financial help, UTEP leaders also are working to create well-informed, well-versed students who are engaged in their academic pursuits.

Revamped academic advising is one component of this mission. In 2017, UTEP was awarded $1.2 million by the UT System Board of Regents to implement a new holistic, cohort-based advising model.

The initiative included strategically redesigned advising efforts that are initiated in the UTEP Academic Advising Center through a student’s first 45 credit hours. One unique component of this advising model is a pilot program that incorporates four Master of Social Work student interns who are embedded with advisers to work with students on their financial literacy.

“The idea comes from an actual financial social work theory,” said Heather Smith, associate vice president for academic affairs at UTEP. “This idea fosters financial literacy by empowering students to make sound financial decisions in the context of their whole life. These four social work interns in the advising center are trained in social work theory to help students gain the knowledge necessary to make sound financial decisions – often in the face of unexpected financial challenges – and the skills to apply that knowledge to reach short- and long-term academic and life goals.”


Working through college is a proud UTEP tradition. As key contributors to the UTEP community, on-campus student employees purposefully connect to faculty, staff, and fellow students, grow personally and professionally, and offset their educational costs. Learn more at

Smith added that part of the holistic approach to advising includes using data on incoming students gathered by CIERP. Factors that are deemed risks to student retention – such as financial hardship and external commitments – are extrapolated from that data to give advisers a framework from which they work with each student to develop an academic path more conducive to success.

“This integrated approach means that when the student comes in, the advisers are aware of dimensions of their lives that might pose challenges,” Smith said. “So, the conversation can immediately be individualized and personalized for the student, taking into consideration the many dimensions of students’ lives, rather than simply suggesting, ‘You need to take this class, this class and this class.’”

Smith said the Academic Advising Center is working to fully integrate the social work aspects of advising in fall 2018, adding six new positions during the next three years.

“What’s interesting is we’ve done this kind of advising for our student-athletes for many years,” CIERP’s Mathew said. “We consider their characteristics and commitments, and make sure their education is balanced with those factors. We recognized that we’ve been doing this well for our student-athletes. But what if we scale this approach to reach all students?”

Mathew said the pilot advising model aims to be proactive, not waiting for students to arrive with issues to solve. It is a team approach in which advisers can have experts on social service programs and financial aid at the ready, hoping to get on the front end of problems students might experience.

UTEP’s student employment experience is another effort in keeping students engaged. Mathew said the full benefits of student employment are difficult to model. However, he contends that working on campus, with higher pay than most comparable jobs outside of the University, means a student is on campus more, is able to work fewer hours, and is less likely to miss class. 

“Isolating the complex impacts of campus employment is difficult,” Mathew said. “But we’ve grown the program. That’s largely because [the Division of] Student Affairs recognizes that it has value.”

The final cornerstone of the University’s effort to lift its students is the UTEP Promise Grant. The grant pledges that qualifying students whose annual family income is less than $30,000 will have their tuition and fees paid by the University.

“These efforts aren’t unique to UTEP,” said Louie Rodriguez, associate vice president for operations and strategic initiatives in the Division of Student Affairs. “But these are hallmark efforts of a broader philosophy that we have in terms of financial access. It’s about creating low- or no-cost engagement opportunities. We’re sending a signal that you don’t have to come from a wealthy family to belong on a college campus.”

For students like Trejo, who was close to leaving school, the University’s efforts are not only well-received, they are life-changing.

“I wasn’t just able to stay in school,” Trejo said. “I became more sure of who I was. All it took was one person making sure I was OK, and it opened so many doors. I am 100 percent, extremely grateful.”

Related story: Education Policy Expert Lauds UTEP Efforts to Help Low-Income Students