The three most important ways that colleges can help students transition into and through higher education involve financial assistance, academic support programs and mental health services, according to the results of a recent national survey of graduating high school seniors.

Officials at the University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso Community College and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso hope to build on last year’s numbers when they enrolled more than 49,000 students, and believe that they can accommodate those needs.

For some El Pasoans who are part of the 2023-24 freshman class, affordability is the main concern.

Alan Garcia decided to attend EPCC this fall mainly due to the financial aid package he received: His Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, earned him a full scholarship for tuition and fees.

Garcia, a 2023 Chapin High School graduate, added that other deciding factors included his interest in the college’s biology courses and labs, and his trust in his college advisers.

“They will tell me how to do things the right way and, if I get lost (academically), they will lead me back to the correct path,” said Garcia, a nursing major.

Financial aid

Students are encouraged to submit their FAFSA, and also can request additional funds from the institutions due to dire hardship or emergencies. The schools have other pools of money to assist students.

Carlos Amaya, vice president of student and enrollment services at EPCC, said the state’s new funding model for community colleges will create some changes that could affect financial aid. He said it was too early to discuss the effect of those changes.

Amaya said that EPCC students earned more than $19 million in Pell grants during the last academic year, a $2 million increase over the previous year.

At the state level, Amaya said the legislature passed a bill that would funnel more money into student grant programs such as the Texas Educational Opportunity Grant and the Texas Public Educational Grant. He added that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board would conduct simulations to see how the new funding rules and disbursement would work for the state’s 50 community college districts.

Gary Edens, who recently stepped down as vice president for Student Affairs at UTEP, said students from families with incomes of $75,000 or less can apply for the Paydirt Promise program, which allows them to attend the university and not pay tuition or mandatory fees. Seven out of 10 university students receive financial aid, according to a UTEP webpage.

Civil engineering major Loeila Casas, a 2023 Burges High School graduate, said she chose UTEP because of the financial aid – including a Pell grant and an institutional grant – as well as its engineering programs.

Edens also noted that the university’s tuition is one of the lowest among the nation’s top research universities. Annual tuition and mandatory fees for a full-time student start at about $7,300, UTEP’s Student Business Services webpage shows. 

“I don’t think anyone’s more committed in Texas for sure, and probably across the country, as far as cost of an education, and we’re going to maintain that commitment,” Edens said.

Mental health and academic services

Representatives from the institutions said they plan to launch new centers, committees and resources this fall that will enhance mental health and support services for students who are dealing with academic issues as well as stress, food and housing insecurity, child care or family issues, or emotional emergencies such as suicidal thoughts. Situations that cannot be resolved by campus personnel will be referred to an off-site agency.

Hilda Alarcon, interim senior director in the TTUHSCEP Office of Student Services and Student Engagement, said her office will add an Academic Support Center on Sept. 1. The new center will offer more advanced tips on how to study and prepare for exams as well as different approaches to understand material.

Alarcon said campus leaders decided to launch this center because many of their students are used to being academically successful and the rigorous dental, nursing, medical or biomedical science curricula could be difficult for some of them.

The Academic Support Center will join the existing centers that focus on wellness, mental health support and services for people with disabilities. The office, which has three clinicians, will have another full-time and a part-time clinician also starting Sept. 1. The resources are available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays on the second floor of the Medical Sciences Building II.

However, the office also oversees the CARE team that includes administrators and staff from all TTUHSCEP schools as well as law enforcement. They will follow-up after hours with students who may be dealing with serious mental health concerns that go beyond the workday.

Steven E. Smith, vice president of Instruction and Workforce Education at EPCC, said that the college has used grant funds to enhance child care, tutoring, supplemental classroom instruction, and other support services. Where possible, EPCC has expanded its services virtually to increase access for students who work.

EPCC expects to open social services/mental health centers at its Northwest, Valle Verde and Mission del Paso campuses during the middle to late part of the fall semester. It will be staffed by a social worker and a licensed professional counselor. College leaders are settling on procedures, but some counselors already are seeing students for initial assessments. If necessary, those students are being referred to community resources.

Meanwhile, academic counselors at each EPCC campus can provide students with emergency mental health and crisis management support to include referrals to off-campus agencies.

The college hopes to hire additional personnel for these centers and to open similar offices at the Transmountain and Rio Grande campuses during the 2024-25 academic year. Until then, students at those campuses can access virtual services, said Paula Mitchell, associate vice president of Instruction & Student Success.

The college began in the spring 2021 semester to send students an engagement survey to check on their well being. One of the questions asks if they need any mental health resources. Of the nearly 8,300 responses, over 400 requested mental health assistance. 

Mitchell said the college also will start a behavioral intervention team this year made up of staff, faculty, administrators and mental health professionals who will review instances of behavioral issues that involve students and employees and act to de-escalate those situations.

“We have a lot of stuff in the works,” said Mitchell, who added that EPCC provides a link to “Mental Health Resources” at the bottom of every college web page.

Among UTEP’s efforts to provide greater academic support include its recent hiring of 19 advisers who were assigned to specific schools to assist students with everything from academics to personal emergencies. Officials expect those advisers to have a significant effect on student retention and progression rates.

Edens noted that the need for mental health services has grown during the past 10 years.  UTEP spends about $1 million annually on mental health counseling support services.

The UT System Board of Regents recently announced a $16.5 million investment in student mental health services across its institutions. Part of UTEP’s portion will go toward free 24/7 online and telephone hotlines. Additionally, UTEP will add two interns to its counseling staff.

The university also invested about $147,000 of its COVID Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds to purchase five multi-use “privacy” pods strategically placed around campus to provide students a quiet and secure place for a virtual counseling session. Students also could use the pods for general meetings with professors or to take an exam.

“It’s to the point where we are almost having difficulty accommodating the large number of students that are needing support, which is why these 24/7 hotlines and these other resources are going to be critically valuable moving forward,” Edens said.

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.