DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – It may have started with satellite classes in a strip mall but, UNT’s Southern sibling is growing up fast. We’re talking about UNT Dallas as it celebrates another year of record enrollment.
“We did start out at a strip mall,” admits UNT Dallas President Bob Mong with a laugh, “no question about it!”
Now, the southern Dallas campus sits on 264 wooded acres near I-35 and Camp Wisdom. They’re building a new $64 million dollar Student Center that’s being billed as the new jewel of the campus. Still, university leaders say they’ve become a magnet for students in urban Dallas and the surrounding suburbs because of accessibility, affordability, and return on investment.
“Right now a lot of our students come from household incomes of around $30,000. Our average graduate, according to state figures, earns $45,000, so immediately if they stick to it, get a degree, they’re going right into the middle class,” says President Mong.
And many of those students plan to return to the impoverished neighborhoods that helped to rear them, in hopes of raising up the next generation.
“I want to come back to the community that I came from,” insists Unique Stewart, a Junior Education Major. “We are super invested in each other, because we want to see each other do better.”
It is not only her name that grabs attention. Unique Stewart’s drive makes her absolutely unforgettable. She’s the first in her family to graduate high school and now she’s on her way to earning a college degree.
“You know what, from now on, I’m going to break that chain for my family. I never thought that college would be this fun, or so much of a growth experience for me.”
She says the nurturing, supportive environment of the campus at first, took her surprise. Now, she says she’s found a metaphor for her life.
“My dreams and everything I am is small right now, but it’s gonna become bigger, so the school is literally a reflection of me.”
Indeed, great things spring from humble beginnings. With enrollment up 51% in the past three years, with graduation and retention rates up as well, President Mong says he is most excited about what the university has kept low: tuition costs.
“I think what I’m proudest of, is our debt upon graduation: for two years running, we had the lowest debt when a student graduates college, of any public university in Texas, and the second lowest in the country.” And he agrees that that’s huge, when students are not coming from wealthy families.
“I think we all know that educational attainment in this country and in this community is very closely tied to the income levels of your parents, so how do you reverse that?” asks Mong. “It’s a problem to be solved that we’ve taken on at UNT Dallas.”
And President Mong is certain that the pathway to solving that problem will be paved with successful partnerships– as he touts the young university’s relationships with DISD, the Dallas County Community College District, other four year universities, philanthropic foundations and local businesses. Mong says working together, the community can “build a pipeline” of education that lifts the economic fortunes of the surrounding community.
“Urban Dallas is where we are really building our reputation, that’s why we’re growing so fast,” adds Mong. “People come here and they feel a welcoming environment, this is a place where they can succeed.”
Like Unique Stewart, who wants to earn her Master’s Degree and then return to UNT Dallas to help shepherd the next generation looking to unlock the chains of poverty.
“They helped me blaze my trail, so I can help you do the same thing as well.”