Leading Longhorns: The University Leadership Network
Every year, many students arrive at UT uncertain that they’ve made the right choice. They may be the first in their families to go to college, or come from under-resourced backgrounds. They probably attended underperforming high schools. The transition to college can be daunting for them, even overwhelming.
But these students have the determination and grit to be Longhorns. They’ve faced adversity and earned their place on the Forty Acres. Now they also have a new support system: the University Leadership Network (ULN).
ULN is a unique incentive-based scholarship program designed to help students integrate into the campus culture. It gives them the support they need to graduate on time while also providing tools to develop as leaders among their peers.
Students follow a comprehensive four-year plan that includes leadership training, internships and experiential learning opportunities, community and university service, and participation in innovative academic success programs — all on top of their course loads.
The program sets ambitious goals that demand performance, maturity, and growth from the students. The ultimate goal is to help them acquire valuable skills and experience that will prepare them to be successful in life.
Unique to ULN, students are held accountable throughout their time at UT to qualify for the program’s financial incentive — a $5,000 annual scholarship, totaling $20,000 over four years.
The scholarship lessens the distraction of financial worry and keeps students focused on academics. It is directly tied to their participation and performance in the program, and requires the completion of 30 or more credit hours each year, the number needed to stay on track to graduate in four years.
ULN is the brainchild of David Laude, UT’s senior vice provost of enrollment and curriculum services.
A University Distinguished Teaching Professor in chemistry, Laude took a scientist’s methodical, data-driven approach to formulate the program. Using predictive modeling, he and his team can identify high school seniors who have been admitted to UT but who have a high likelihood of not completing their degree.
“ULN focuses on students who are statistically least likely to do well,” Laude says. “Yet we make it clear that they have been selected for this program not because we fear they will fail, but because we believe they can succeed.
“The philosophy behind ULN is simple. No matter what a student’s background is, if he or she can maintain a positive mindset focused on belonging as a Longhorn, through the ups and downs of college life — that is what leads to success.”
SUPPORT AT EVERY STEP
Each year, 500 students are invited to participate in ULN. The fall 2015 cohort increases the program to 1,500 students, and at full capacity there will be 2,000. Through the concerted efforts of faculty members, staffers, and student mentors, ULN’s participants are inspired and motivated to stay on the four-year plan.
The first year is about building community, teaching leadership skills, and preparing participants to enter professional environments. Students take part in a weekly leadership speaker series and peer mentor meetings, learning to apply topics such as professional communication, resilience, and problem solving.
During their second year, students hold on-campus internships and develop a variety of skill sets. In their third and fourth years, they can tailor their experience to include research, off-campus internships, study abroad, and civic engagement activities.
“We want these young people to succeed, and if we can also help them to do it in four years, everyone wins,” Laude says “Students who graduate on time assume less debt while getting a jump-start on their careers. And we increase our capacity to educate even more students.”
FIRST CLASS RESULTS
When ULN launched in 2013, its first cohort had a predicted four-year graduation rate of 31 percent, compared with 55 percent for the overall Class of ’17. Yet after their first year, 92 percent of ULN students returned for their sophomore year, nearly matching the 95 percent rate for the overall freshman class. They are also staying on track to graduate — 85 percent finished their first year with 30 or more total credit hours, compared with 88 percent of all freshmen.
Not surprisingly, donors who hope to increase access to higher education are responding to the program with enthusiasm, which is fortunate because the university has limited funding for ULN. Additional philanthropy will be key to further expansion.
Houston Endowment gave $8.2 million in June to support 375 ULN students from the Houston area. These students will be designated as Jones Scholars in honor of Houston Endowment founders Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones.
“We are excited to support this innovative approach,” says Lisa Hall, vice president for programs at Houston Endowment. “ULN provides academic, financial, and social support, all of which are crucial for students to persist through college and obtain a four-year degree.”
Gustavo Molinar is a member of ULN’s first cohort and, as president of its student organization, has helped refine the curriculum for the first-year lectures. He says the chance to develop his abilities while surrounded by others who bring their own strengths has been transformative.
“I’m really glad I signed on for ULN,” says the psychology/health and society double major from Houston. “I’ve learned more about myself, and it’s connected me to professors, to different departments, and to other students. It’s been an incredible opportunity.”
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