The University Leadership Network flips the script for students at risk
Alex Moon-Walker, recipient of the Leaton Thomas Oliver Scholarship in Chemical Engineering, at his first UT football game
Photo: Courtesy of Alex Moon-Walker
For as long as public universities have existed, one of their chief benefits to society has been the power to break generational cycles of poverty and enable upward social mobility.
In his most recent State of the University Address, President Greg Fenves noted that nearly half of the UT students who graduated in the early 2000s, who came from families in the lowest income quintile, are now earning at least twice the amount their families earned. “For these graduates, this is the American dream come true,” he said.
But these blessings have never been evenly distributed nor the power to bestow them fully deployed. A report published in 2012 showed that 60 percent of Longhorns whose parents both graduated from college graduated in four years, while just 39 percent of first-generation students could say the same. This becomes all the more dire against a backdrop of declining generational prosperity nationwide. “Over the past half century in the U.S.,” Fenves said, “a child’s prospect of earning more than their parents has fallen from 90 percent to 50 percent. It has been a dramatic change, and it affects every person in every walk of life.”
In recent years, The University of Texas at Austin has worked hard to provide support for students least likely to graduate in four years and is now seeing significant improvement. The overall four-year graduation rate has increased from 51 percent in 2011 to 66 percent in 2017. It is estimated that almost 8,000 undergraduate students at UT are first-generation, and first-generation and low-income students had the largest percentage increase during this time period. These students increased their four-year graduation rates to nearly 60 percent. In addition, UT strengthened its ability to be a force for social mobility by putting money and infrastructure behind a program that specifically helps students who, statistics tell us, are least likely to succeed. The University Leadership Network (ULN) is an incentive-based scholarship program for students with financial need who may be unprepared for the rigors of college, the majority of whom are first-generation students. In May 2014, the program gained national attention when it was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
Each year, 500 freshmen enter the program, which includes four years of leadership training, experiential learning opportunities, and university service. Students gain skills in problem solving, professionalism, time management, team building and coordination, communication methods, and ethical decision-making. Students also earn up to $5,000 in financial assistance every year they stay on track. A key element of the program is that students receive their incentive-based scholarship in 10 $500 payments dependent upon completion of specific program requirements.
Students must complete 30 credit hours per year and maintain at least a 2.0 cumulative GPA. The financial support is combined with professional development, including three years of internships, which helps students streamline their college experience, cut student loan debt, and graduate on time.
As Paul Tough wrote in The New York Times Magazine, “a big part of the solution lies at colleges like The University of Texas at Austin, selective but not superelite, that are able to perform, on a large scale, what used to be a central mission — arguably the central mission — of American universities: to take large numbers of highly motivated working-class teenagers and give them the tools they need to become successful professionals.”
The success of the University Leadership Network is part of an even larger student success story. Today, nearly 66 percent of UT undergraduates earn degrees within four years, with 82 percent graduating within six years. When the first ULN class arrived on the Forty Acres in 2013, it was predicted that only 33 percent of them would graduate in four years because they were not academically prepared for the rigors of UT and had high financial need. Those students far exceeded expectations, with 55 percent graduating in four years, a 66 percent increase over what was predicted. In addition, nearly 20 percent of the incoming class is still enrolled and on track to graduate in five or six years. Graduates of the program now work at companies like Deloitte, General Motors, and KPMG, and others are continuing their studies in graduate and doctoral programs at universities including Harvard and UC Berkeley.
Alex Moon Walker
“I come from a family that does not have a lot of money,” says Alex Moon-Walker, of Irving, a member of the first graduating class of the University Leadership Network.
“My mother struggled to make ends meet month to month, so it was never really an option for me to ask my parents for financial support.” Fortunately, Moon-Walker received the Leaton Thomas Oliver Scholarship in Chemical Engineering given by Leaton’s parents, George and Leila. “If I had not received this scholarship and my ULN scholarship, I would most likely have had to borrow an insane amount of money,” he says, “maybe to the point where I would not be able to attend a great university such as UT.” This year, he graduated with a double major in biochemistry and microbiology.
He says the support networks he was able to develop over the past four years at Texas made all the difference. “Fellow students and faculty who have mentored me have become a big part of my identity as they have helped me grow not just as an academic but also as a person. The connections I have made will last the rest of my life.”
Though the donors of his scholarship are now deceased, if he could tell them anything, he would say, “From the bottom of my heart, I would like to say thank you. If it were not for your financial support, I would not have been able to attend UT and graduate from one of the most incredible institutions in the world. I am beyond excited to continue on my career path and leave a legacy that will exemplify UT’s motto, ‘What starts here changes the world.’”
Moon-Walker is now a Ph.D. student in virology at Harvard University. He wants to one day be a professor and research emerging viruses.
The Oliver Scholarship has supported 88 students since its inception and like Moon-Walker each of these students has their own remarkable story.
Texas Leader Magazine
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