The University of Texas at El Paso celebrated its first day of the fall 2022 semester with a record for most first-time college students in its 108-year history.

UTEP on Monday announced that the 3,600 first-time college students in the 2022 freshman class surpassed the previous record of 3,400 set in 2019. The university said the latest figure is 22% more than its fall 2021 amount.

The entire freshman class, to include transfers, is about 4,700. The institution plans to release its final overall enrollment numbers on Sept. 8.

Gary Edens, vice president for Student Affairs, said the improved numbers after two enrollment cycles hampered by COVID-19 would help replenish the student population at UTEP, which graduated a record 3,126 students this past spring.

“To have the largest freshman class ever in UTEP history is exciting,” said Edens, who added that he hopes they will be part of a new wave of students who will break attendance records in the years to come. “It means that good things are on the way.”

Edens called the freshman cohort a “really good” indicator that the university’s grass-roots efforts to engage area school districts worked. One example is Operation College Bound, an annual program that pre-dates the pandemic where UTEP and El Paso Community College work with local schools to deliver one-stop enrollment support for students. Organizers modified the program this year to enroll students in college courses.

Amanda Vasquez, assistant vice president for enrollment management, could not say for sure why so many freshmen enrolled this fall. But she said she believes students may have based their decisions on UTEP’s status as the nation’s leading Hispanic-serving institution and its reputation for student service, which attracts first-generation college students and students of color.

She said her preliminary data shows that about 89% of the freshman class came from the region, which includes northern Mexico, but a greater-than-usual number came from Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and communities in south Texas. She also noted that more students enrolled from Arizona and parts of Southern California.

Amanda Vasquez, assistant vice president for enrollment services at UTEP. (Danny Perez/El Paso Matters)

Vasquez said that some students select UTEP because of its affordability and its strong academic reputation, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

She added that students have shown interest in institutions that offer financial incentives such as UTEP’s Paydirt Promise Plus program where Texas resident students whose families earn less than $75,000 annually do not have to pay out-of-pocket for tuition and fees. An additional 500 students overall qualified for this program in fall 2022.

This past May, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its spring enrollment data. While it shared concerning numbers overall for higher education, especially community colleges, it also noted increases in freshman registration.

The center reported a 4.2% (about 13,700 students) bump in first-time students over the previous spring. That number included 6,000 more students, or 3.1%, at community colleges, and 7,300 more freshmen, or 10.8% at public four-year institutions. This was the largest first-time student increase. The center also found that the number of first-time Latino/a freshman also jumped by 4%.

“This year was a very important year as we rebounded from the pandemic,” Vasquez said. “It was a very difficult (time) for a lot of families in the community, so we see this as a wonderful sign that the community continues to value UTEP and to believe in us as we believe in them.”

Students in a public speaking class at the University of Texas at El Paso meet for the first session of the fall semester on Monday. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Among the freshmen on campus for the bustling first day of fall classes were Camila Gonzalez and America Ramirez, who along with several of their friends shared their reasons to enroll at UTEP. Many of them had family members who are alumni or were familiar with the campus’ academic and research opportunities.

Some mentioned that they liked the proximity to their homes, as well as the grants and scholarships that made higher education affordable. Others said they wanted to meet new people, join student organizations and become part of the campus community.

Gonzalez, 18, graduated from Ysleta High School last spring. The first-generation college student said the financial aid made it possible for her to enroll and live in Miner Canyon, a student housing complex on the north end of campus. The biology major said she wants to pursue research opportunities and eventually attend medical school.

Ramirez took a gap year after she graduated from Horizon High School in 2021. She used the time to earn her phlebotomy license and plans to get a job in that field to help pay for college. The 18-year-old biological sciences major wants to work in a medical research lab and believes the university will help her achieve that goal.

“I like (UTEP’s) big campus feel and I know what I want to do,” Ramirez said. “I’ve got a straight path forward.”

Edens called the successful freshman enrollment the first step in a multiyear, multipronged strategy to increase the university’s enrollment over the next three to four years.

He said the university would survey the freshmen starting in mid-September to learn what factors influenced their decision to enroll at the institution. He said the institution’s marketing team would use that information to process how to enhance future student outreach, but that effort would have to wait.

“Right now, our focus is on getting the students into classes,” he said.  

El Paso Community College also reported high numbers of students enrolled in college for the first time: more than 4,700 this fall. That’s about 26% more than 2021 and 46% over 2020. EPCC enrolled 4,518 first-time college students in 2019.

Keri Moe, associate vice president of External Relations, Communication & Development, said registration continues throughout the week and she expects the final numbers to increase.

“During the pandemic, many students were forced to take time away from school,” Moe said. “However, as we recover and return to more stability, students have been able to refocus and prioritize their education. The jobs of the future will require some sort of degree or certificate. Students know that education is an investment that will pay off in the future and that enrolling in college is a smart choice for them and their families.”

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.