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University of Texas Support for Low-Income Students Increases Amid Economic Challenges of the Pandemic

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AUSTIN, Texas — With new financial aid programs that cover tuition and provide additional support for low-income students, The University of Texas at Austin enrolled one of its largest ever classes of Pell Grant students this year while increasing the overall percentage of Pell Grant students enrolled as undergraduates.

The increase comes at a crucial time for Texas families struggling with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also bucks a national trend of declining college enrollments among low-income students.

According to data from the National College Attainment Network, applications for financial aid declined 4.8% this year. National Pell numbers will not be known until later this year, but the decline in aid applications indicates a national drop in enrollment among students eligible for Pell Grants, federal subsidies given to students with the highest financial need.

In contrast, at UT Austin the number of incoming freshmen with Pell Grants rose from 1,803 to 2,361 students, accounting for 28.4% of the entering class. Overall, 22.4% of UT Austin undergraduates were awarded Pell Grants this year, compared to 21.3% last year.

The higher numbers at Texas suggest the effectiveness of UT’s two latest commitments to serving low-income students, the Texas Advance Commitment and, new for this year, UT for Me – Powered by Dell Scholars. UT for Me is the result of a $100 million commitment over 10 years from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation to support Pell Grant-eligible students, more than two-thirds of whom come from families with incomes of $30,000 or less each year.

As part of this commitment, incoming, first-time-in-college Pell-recipients with the most financial need automatically became a Dell Scholar at UT Austin and received a scholarship of $20,000 over their time in college that can be applied to the cost of attendance, including room and board, transportation, supplies, and other expenses. Admissions staff at the university attribute the six percent increase in Pell Grants for incoming freshmen to several factors but perhaps most importantly to this program.

“The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation could not have stepped up at a more important time to offer these crucial resources so students from all backgrounds can pursue the dream of a UT degree,” said President Jay Hartzell. “Together with our Board of Regents, they are helping thousands of students and families chart an educational path forward despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

For Texas residents, the Dell Scholars funding came on top of the Texas Advance Commitment, which guarantees aid to cover the full cost of tuition and fees for Texas families earning $65,000 or less each year.

Financial barriers aren’t the only challenge facing low-income students this school year, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes the vast majority of learning and educational resources online. Lack of access to computers, reliable internet, counseling services and other programs that serve as springboards for low-income students across the country are increasingly out of reach.

However, at UT, eligible students (including Dell Scholars at UT Austin) have been able to receive crucial non-financial resources and mentoring through UT for Me – Powered by Dell Scholars. Through UT for Me, students receive:

  • Personalized, multifaceted support
  • A laptop computer
  • Financial aid coaching and financial literacy training
  • Tutoring and textbook support
  • Peer advising support
  • Internship and career planning
  • Connections to university resources and programming
  • On-track graduation planning

UT for Me has made all of these resources available online so that first-time-in-college Pell-recipient students — nearly 75% of whom are taking online-only courses — can access the support they need to complete their degree.

With the financial support and academic services offered by both Dell Scholars at UT Austin and UT for Me, UT Austin hopes to raise six-year graduation rates for Pell-eligible students from 73% to 90%, which would surpass the university’s current overall six-year graduation rate of 86%.

UT Austin’s current overall percentage of Pell Grant students, while rising, remains lower than the most recent peak of 28% Pell awardees in 2011-12, in the wake of the 2008 recession. If recent economic history offers a guide, the university’s new financial aid programs will be vital for students and their families in the years to come, as the country seeks to recover from the economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.