This morning, Washington Monthly magazine announced its 2013 college rankings and UTEP came in at #7 overall – between #6 Stanford and #8 Harvard. In honor of this ranking I’m re-posting an essay I wrote for UTEP Magazine last year that explained the ranking system and placed UTEP’s progress into historical context. Congratulations UTEP!
The original article is online here; the one below has been updated to reflect today’s ranking.
Which Texas university meets all of the following criteria?
When I joined UTEP’s history faculty in 2008, I would not have answered “UTEP” to any of these criteria—and I would have been wrong for two reasons. First, the past five years have brought UTEP a flowering of state and national recognition. In 2009, the University was recognized as an “emerging research university” by the state legislature. In 2012, Hispanic Business Magazine ranked the College of Business number one for the third year in a row and the College of Engineering placed in the top five for the eighth straight year. Also in 2012, Washington Monthly ranked UTEP twelfth overall among all national universities and number one in both social mobility and low net price–meaning we held on to the lead in social mobility and price and rose overall. Second, though it seems as if the accolades are suddenly pouring in, they are in fact the result of long processes that go back half a century and more but that have been largely hidden from public view. How did UTEP arrive at the point of being ranked seventh in the nation? What does that mean for the University’s future?
Like everything else we try to compare in life—from cell phone plans to restaurants—university rankings reflect the values of those who make the comparison. The rankings performed annually by U.S. News and World Report, for example, emphasize prestige factors such as financial resources and the selectivity of applicant acceptance. Accordingly, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale come out on top with annual costs around $40,000 and student populations of only 5,000 to 6,000. Washington Monthly, on the other hand, has chosen to measure the improvement of individual lives, the net cost of an education, research expenditures, and service to the community—values shared and developed by UTEP over the past century.
Let’s begin with net price. When the school opened its doors in 1914, tuition was free and students paid $30 in fees. The price has remained low over the century, prompting several interesting incidents. During the Great Depression, El Paso High School loaned us biology equipment, chairs, desks, and blackboards. On at least two occasions local citizens put up money to pay faculty salaries so that classes could resume in the fall. In the current century, UTEP holds the nation’s lowest ratio of administrators per capita.
Pinched revenues contributed to the University’s growing emphasis on research over the past quarter of a century. Two years after the mining school opened its doors, the student science club began publishing a tiny journal that excerpted current scholarship on mining in the Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. The establishment of the Schellenger Research Labs in 1953 marked the college’s entrance into research contracting, with projects funded by government and private industry. But it was the economic hard times of the 1970s that reduced public funding and prompted UTEP to look for money in new places, particularly in the form of new and larger research grants. Researchers won $2.8 million in grant funding in 1980 and that number grew to $19.7 million in 1989. Recent construction of facilities dedicated to research have helped UTEP researchers secure greater funding each year such that total annual research expenditures have grown from $28 million in 2000 to $76 million in 2012.
A commitment to social mobility has also evolved over time. When the school opened in 1914, it admitted only 27 students. They came from across the country, focused exclusively on mining engineering, and were all male—a model of higher education that reflected the traditional model for an elite population. Women joined the student body in 1916 and in 1955 the school dropped the statewide ban on black admission, almost a decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and eleven years before the 1966 championship basketball team. During the 1960s, the administration successfully pushed to increase enrollment from 5,000 in 1962 to 15,000 by 1977. These new students came from the Paso del Norte region and gradually transformed the school into a commuter campus with a growing Hispanic population. While never formally banned as black students had been, Hispanic students were prohibited from membership in many fraternities and sororities and experienced various expressions of informal discrimination. By 1985 Hispanic students constituted 50 percent of the student body, a figure that has risen to roughly 75 percent today. The shift toward reflecting the region’s demographic composition also meant that nearly one third of UTEP students come from families with incomes under $20,000 and that over half are first generation college students. Thus, today’s students are very unlike the “traditional” students who entered in 1914, and it is precisely because of this shift that UTEP is now recognized as the best university in the country at extending the American dream of higher education across all demographic categories and zip codes.
Successful social mobility is tied to UTEP’s efforts to serve the region. The tiny mining school was founded with a conscientious awareness of the opportunities for mineral extraction in the region made possible by El Paso’s railroad line and the world’s second largest smelter (later known as ASARCO). The awareness of place expanded over time to include teacher exchanges with Mexico in the 1950s, inter-American science and biomedical programs in the 1970s, and a variety of border focused centers in institutes throughout the 1990s. Various collaborative partnerships and initiatives help students give back to the community.
As UTEP completes its first century and looks toward the second, it increasingly receives recognition of strengths that have been cultivated over many decades. Long-term commitments to student success, research, and service to the region now find enhanced synergy in the twenty-first century. Hopefully UTEP’s Centennial Celebration will draw increased attention to the University’s past successes as well as its future promise.