Sources include: College Scorecard. Tristan Ipock, The Paisano

The recent shift in leadership following former UTSA President Ricardo Romo’s exit opened the floor to the question: “what is next for the University of Texas at San Antonio?”

Acting President Dr. Pedro Reyes has transitioned into his role quickly and has no reservations voicing the challenges UTSA faces today. The two most critical priorities on Reyes’ agenda are student success and budget.

“We lose 25 percent of our students in the first year and another 25 percent in the second year, leaving us with only 50 percent of the students and then after that, we lose some more students.” Reyes said at his first, ‘Coffee with the President,’ March 23 at the UTSA Ski Lodge.

UTSA reported a 30.6 percent six-year graduation rate, the third lowest of the UT System as of 2014, surpassing UT-Permian Basin at 30.1 percent and UT-Brownsville at 26.6 percent. This 2014 report occurred before the merger of UT Pan American and UT Brownsville. The institution is now called UT-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV).

A graduation rate is the percentage of a school’s first-time, first-year undergraduate students who complete their program within six years. Graduation rates do not include incoming and outgoing transfer students because federal data counts only students who graduate from the school where they first enrolled.

An additional 23 percent of former UTSA students graduated within six years at other higher education institutions and, overall, eight percent of the Texans who graduated last year earned degrees after transferring schools.

“I don’t want to hear excuses,” Reyes said. “UTRGV is along the border with a higher poverty level and they have higher graduation rates and retention rates than we do. So there is something along the way that’s not clicking; somehow we have to find this out and solve it as soon as we can.”

UTSA enacted a Graduation Rate Improvement Plan (GRIP) in 2012 to address the issue.

“The GRIP is the most comprehensive, the most collaborative initiative we have ever produced,” Former President Ricardo Romo said upon its initiation. “It touches every facet of the university. It addresses every stage of a student’s career.”

UTSA has seen a modest rise from its 27 percent graduation rate in 2013 to the current 31 percent. Reyes pointed to the 60.9 percent graduation rate at the University of Texas at Austin as an example of possible improvement UTSA can make.

UT Austin’s four year graduation rate increased 3.1 percentage points compared in one year, and 10.3 percentage points since 2011 when the university launched a detailed plan to raise graduation rates. The university’s goal is to raise the four year graduation rate to 70 percent by 2017. The UT Austin six year graduation rate is 80 percent.

Reyes advocated a goal-based approach to raising graduation rates but also voiced a focus on how incoming students get engaged and socialized at the university to better their sense of belonging.

“We really have to improve in this area,” Reyes said. “I have not seen an institution (with) that kind of issue and it’s the only way we can improve (student success).”

According to Reyes, students are the heart of the institution.

“Without students we wouldn’t be here. Period,”  Reyes said.

During his tenure as an educator, Reyes researched organization and investing strategies for students in both K-12 as well as in higher education. He believes student success correlates with UTSA’s goals, including reaching Tier One status.

The UTSA budget is Reyes’ second critical priority.

For UTSA to reach Tier One status, according to Reyes the main concern is money. Reyes identified communication with the Texas Legislature and San Antonio elected officials as a key strategy.

“I think having a single message really helps,” Reyes said. “We need to begin to draft talking points so we are all in sync with the same sheet. Otherwise, the State Legislature sees dissonance.”

The 85th State Legislature began Jan. 10 and remains in session. During the session, Texas lawmakers address the state’s many needs including higher education. UTSA leaders have spent time in Austin to help legislators understand UTSA’s needs and advance its funding priorities and await to hear the legislature’s final decision.

Reyes plans to hold the ‘Coffee with the President’ series every few weeks. Schedule updates will be posted on Reyes’ Facebook page.

“I want to know what you’re thinking, what are your concerns and how we can do better at this institution,” Reyes said. “My mission is not to miss a step on what has been built so far.”

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