Traditionally, the parking lot at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is always packed with thousands of cars belonging to students and teachers arriving at the university. It’s a sight that hasn’t been seen there since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the school to close its doors in March for the remainder of the spring semester and the summer semester.
Though that visual isn’t much different this fall semester, it’s not an indicator of how many students are enrolled at the university. In a news release, the university reported it saw record breaking enrollment over the last two semesters, but you wouldn’t know it based on how empty the parking lot is.
In its fifth year of existence, UTRGV reported its fall enrollment stands at 32,618, an increase of 3,505 students – or 11.5 percent – from the previous fall semester.
UTRGV is now one of only nine public universities in Texas to surpass the 30,0000-enrollment mark. These universities include Texas A&M, UT Austin, Houston, UT Arlington, Texas State, North Texas, Texas Tech and UT San Antonio, according to university spokesman Patrick Gonzalez.
“They say higher education is the great equalizer of the world. People benefit from continuing their education to universities, college and universities so the bigger we grow, the more enrollment we have, the better options we are providing for the community,” Gonzalez said.
In addition, UTRGV’s 2020 first-year retention rate, the amount of freshman students who remained at the university after their first year, is 81 percent. This represents an increase of 4.2 percent, and its four-year graduation rate is 29 percent, an increase of 4.3 percent. Both are record highs for the university.
“We’ve always had record breaking enrollment growth but to have that in the middle of a pandemic is even more astonishing for us,” Gonzalez said. “Most of the year was during a pandemic so to be able to have an 81 percent retention rate even in a pandemic is incredible, it puts us among the top five college retention rates in the state. We‘re not only teaching a record amount of students, we’re keeping them on track to graduate, it builds up success for the community.”
The retention rate is one that may be more important than the overall enrollment rate, Gonzalez said.
“It’s great if you have a big enrollment but if you’re not getting students through graduation, what’s the point?,” Gonzalez explained. “Not only is our enrollment climbing significantly, but our first year retention rate of first year freshmen students came back at a record rate.”
Gonzalez said the high enrollment for the fall semester was expected after the university also saw a record number of students attending summer classes.
During the summer, 17,518 students enrolled for classes, a nearly 28 percent increase from the previous summer when 13,755 students were enrolled.
While classes were completely virtual during the summer, less than 10 percent of all 5,000 courses in the fall are in person as most of the other classes are online or a hybrid of online and in person classes, Gonzalez said.
The high enrollment rate in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic is one that caused the university to predict high enrollment figures, Gonzalez said.
“Anytime there is an issue like a pandemic, you tend to see enrollment figures go up because getting an education becomes more significant so we knew the pandemic would have some sort of factor in making people come back to school or continue it,” Gonzalez said.
To entice students, the university offered two COVID-19 financial aid relief packages for the fall and summer semesters for eligible students to receive two cash grants totaling $1,000 in the fall and $1,000 off their summer tuition as well as free parking for the fall semester.
“We knew some of our students are struggling financially so we focused on what we could do to provide aid and incentives to keep kids in school. It worked out great,” Gonzalez said.
More enrollment records are expected to be broken with the next generation of students.
For the first time in the school’s history, UTRGV enrolled more than 5,000 incoming freshmen and graduate students this fall, further demonstrating the balanced growth occurring at the university.
“These extraordinary outcomes amid the COVID-19 pandemic are a testament to the hard work and resilience of our students, faculty and staff,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said in a statement. “We came together during these difficult times to ensure everyone’s safety and success, and I am extremely proud of everyone’s incredible effort.”