DALLAS (AP) — Nearly two decades ago, state Rep. Helen Giddings and state Sen. Royce West helped lay the groundwork for a new four-year university in the heart of southern Dallas.
The Dallas Morning News reports seeing that dream come into focus, Giddings said, has been thrilling. Giddings and West recently took part in the grand opening of the University of North Texas at Dallas’ $63 million student center.
“I could not be more excited,” Giddings said. “As I drove up today, I couldn’t even imagine this hill, this building and all the students, all the excitement when we started years ago.”
The new 131,000-square foot building — well-appointed with a new library and fitness center, and housing the school’s advising, tutoring and financial aid offices — is yet another signpost that the university in southeast Oak Cliff is finding its way.
UNT-Dallas boasts of one of the most diverse student bodies in Texas: 85% of its students are Latino or African American, more than 70% of UNT-Dallas students are first-generation college students. Most come from middle- to low-income households, and most are from Dallas County.
Enrollment at the school, which officially gained its independence as a four-year university in 2009, has topped 4,100 across its undergraduate and graduate programs for the first time.
That growth has made the institution the fastest-growing public university in the state.
“Now, we’re involved in the conversation in this city; we’re at the table,” UNT-Dallas President Bob Mong said. “It’s a very different era.”
That new era, in many ways, was sparked by Mong, hired as the university’s president in July 2015 after a 46-year career in journalism, including a long stint as editor of The Dallas Morning News.
Since Mong’s arrival, UNT-Dallas has added 1,600 students, transitioning from a majority part-time student population to a younger, majority full-time undergraduate body. The number of graduates from its undergraduate and graduate programs also has increased from 475 in 2015 to 900 in the last school year.
Such enrollment growth has propelled expansions in facilities, staff, and funding.
In addition to the new student center, the university opened another building this summer — a $71 million renovation of Dallas’ old City Hall for its burgeoning law school.
The university is hiring 14 new faculty members this year in high-demand areas such as criminal justice and business analytics.
And during the most recent Legislative session, UNT-Dallas received the biggest increase in formula funding, 23.8%, of any other higher education institution in the state.
“Look, I’m no higher education genius,” Mong said. “There was a collective will to get out of startup. But we had been stuck in startup mode for many years: up one year, down the next. Everybody wanted to grow the university. So we had to build the confidence, involve everybody — students, faculty, staff.”
The school has found its successes by focusing on “three simple goals,” Mong said: community connectedness, growth and student success.
More than any other four-year university in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, UNT-Dallas’ recruiting efforts are hyper-local. Around 90% of its students come from Dallas and its ring suburbs.
Dallas City Council member Jaime Resendez, a 2008 graduate, said the mission of serving local students is critical to the city’s future.
After eight years in the military and two years at Dallas County Community College District’s Eastfield College, Resendez said he found a clearer focus at UNT-Dallas. After seeing other students with aspirations of going to graduate school, he decided to pursue a law degree — eventually graduating from the University of Texas law school.
“It’s extremely important for folks in southern Dallas to see that kind of institution in our backyard,” Resendez said. “It allows us to dream big.”
To reach potential students, UNT-Dallas has been eager to join and create partnerships with neighboring school districts, DCCCD and area businesses, striving to build a smoother pathway from high school graduation to a high-demand job.
West called the university a “catalyst for economic development in the southern sector.”
Those words echoed Mong’s call to make graduates career-ready to fill high-need jobs in Dallas.
To that end, UNT-Dallas was the first four-year institution to take part in Dallas County Promise, a program started by DCCCD and Dallas-based education nonprofit Commit Partnership to offer a free associate’s degree to any high school graduate from a predominantly low-income high school. For students desiring a four-year degree, UNT-Dallas extended that tuition-free path for students who had made it through community college.
The Promise now has 43 participating high schools — including most of Dallas ISD’s campuses — and reaches nearly 17,000 graduating seniors. Currently, UNT-Dallas has 261 students from the Promise program.
“One reason we’re involved is that those are our Tier 1 recruiting high schools,” Mong said. “It made sense for us to be involved.”
Mong and UNT-Dallas have also extended partnerships on a more personal level.
Brian Lusk, the Dallas Independent School District’s chief of strategic initiatives, said that Mong is integrally involved in early college high school efforts at Lincoln and Sunset High Schools, attending advisory meetings at those campuses, and helping shape curriculum development.
According to Lusk, Mong played a pivotal role in helping secure two industry partnerships for Lincoln High’s hospitality and logistics career pathways: Hyatt Hotels and FedEx.
The university’s integration at Sunset’s collegiate academy is even more pronounced. UNT-Dallas is an industry partner at Sunset, offering its expertise on the academy’s two areas of study: public health and education. The high school is connected with the UNT System’s Health Science Center in Fort Worth. And it is also taking part in an innovative collaboration between DISD, DCCCD and UNT-Dallas’ Emerging Teacher Initiative, attempting to create a pipeline of bilingual teachers from its Spanish-speaking student population.
“They’re very mission-driven on the kids that they serve,” said Todd Williams, the chairman and CEO of Commit. “They realize this challenge that’s in front of us is too big to solve alone — so they are amazing at partnerships. I think we are blessed in Dallas to have the leaders in Dallas ISD, DCCCD, and UNT-Dallas working together, not worrying about turf or fiefdoms, basically doing what they can that’s best for kids.”
Another key driver for UNT-Dallas’ growth is its affordability.
Full-time undergraduate students taking 15 credit hours per semester will pay around $9,100 for the 2019-20 school year, making the university one of the most affordable four-year schools in the state.
Given UNT-Dallas’ socioeconomic breakdown, most students are eligible for Pell grants and Texas Public Education Grants. But Mong and his administration are trying to build up an endowment that would provide scholarships and completion assistance to cover any gaps in cost.
On move-in day for the school’s only residence hall, the 120-room Wisdom Hall, new students and student volunteers cited the school’s affordability and proximity to home as key reasons why they were attending UNT-Dallas.
“I wanted to be close to home, and the situation worked perfectly for me,” said Jacob Hurd, an freshman from Lancaster.
Vilma Trevino, a senior from North Mesquite High School studying criminal justice, transferred after two years at Eastfield College. She looked at other options — Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin and Texas State — but decided that staying closer to home was the best option. Doing so allowed her to keep her job as an office assistant at charter operator Nova Academy, and kept costs down by avoiding room and board at another school.
“It’s as affordable as it gets,” Trevino said. “I’m not graduating with student debt. I think that’s the main part. When you go out and start looking for a job that covers your student loans, your house, your car and everything, that’s difficult given the way the economy’s going. So it’s essential to look for colleges that are within your budget.”
Maria Martinez, a graduate accounting student from North Dallas High School, found her way to UNT Dallas after stints at DCCCD’s Richland College and the University of Texas at Dallas.
Going to school at UTD “was taking a lot longer, because I was trying to do it without taking on any debt,” Martinez said. “Working full time, and going to school part time, taking one class here and there, I was never going to finish.”
Giddings, who helped sponsor the 2001 bill that led to UNT-Dallas’ creation, said last month’s celebration was proof that there was “a real need for this university, so that students who otherwise couldn’t afford it would be able to pursue their college degrees.”
“It sounded like a lofty idea. It sounded like it was going to be very tough. But the response from these students — and this community — has made this happen.”