Gregory L. Fenves: Promoting social mobility should be universities’ mission

Photo: Tecnológico de Monterrey.

Photo: Tecnológico de Monterrey.

According to the president of the University of Texas at Austin, Gregory L. Fenves, to improve the quality of life for citizens in an increasingly competitive world, education is the most critical element. Or at least that's what he pointed out during his lecture: "Universities as an engine of social mobility."

The academic and engineer presented the strategies that his institution has implemented to correct the inequality in the academic success of their students at the fifth International Conference of Educational Innovation (CIIE), at the Tecnológico de Monterrey.

"Social mobility is the opportunity that an individual must have, in any economic situation, to have a more satisfying, healthy and prosperous life compared to the situation in which he grew up," Fenves explained. The leading universities of the United States must be the engines for economic mobility for all students; he said, a mission that is “deeply rooted in at the University of Texas.”

“One of the most challenging problems we face at UT and all the leading universities in the United States is how we serve students who are coming from low-income households. These students have been historically underserved by the great colleges and universities.”

He also noted that, in most elite universities in the United States, the majority of students come from the wealthiest 1% of the population than the 60% less favored.

According to Fenves, statistics show that low-income students match their income with students who come from wealthier families ten years after graduation, a fundamental reason to support those students.

The University of Texas is working in three areas to improve educational quality, access, and social mobility:

Preparing students for college. Many low-income alumni find problems due to their financial circumstance. Therefore, UT Austin created a program that trains high school teachers so they can coach students for college. In addition, they complement that teaching with dozens of online courses, especially in STEM subjects such as physics, chemistry, computer science, and precalculus. Currently, they have more than 30 thousand students.

Once in college, provide opportunities for student's success. With the goal of providing additional support, the Texas institution uses a large amount of data to identify students who are less likely to graduate. They bring these students to small and intense learning communities that function as academic support networks.

Experiential learning. Through this educational method, they seek to bring the world to the class. Solving real problems attracts students, which has allowed the university to make significant progress, especially in demographic groups of African-Americans and Hispanics.