Diana Natalicio and Mark Edwards: UTEP Inspires Success Through Collaboration•
Diana Natalicio, President, University of Texas at El Paso and Mark Edwards, Executive Director, Opportunity Nation
A quality education is the primary rung on the ladder of opportunity. Research shows that a person’s lifetime earning potential significantly increases with the level of education achieved: In 2009, the median salary for a young adults with a bachelor’s degree was $45,000, while one with only a high-school diploma earned $30,000.
Despite the pivotal role of higher education in the future of our nation, only 10 percent of youths from low-income American families graduate from a four-year college, compared to 50 percent from high-income families; and nearly one-half of African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans drop out of high school.
These chilling statistics will have a dampening effect on the next generation, but they also impact us today: fewer grads generally mean higher levels of unemployment, poverty, public assistance, crime and imprisonment.
Increasing access to postsecondary educational programs and developing regional economies that capitalize on improved educational attainment requires broad-based collaborative efforts on both the local and national levels. That’s why the University of Texas at El Paso and Opportunity Nation — a national campaign comprising more than 200 businesses, nonprofits, corporate partners, faith-based organizations, educational institutions and civic organizations working collectively to rescue the American Dream — partnered to host events designed to develop and share these very ideas.
Titled “Opportunity Days,” the events brought more than 150 education, business, and civic leaders to the UTEP campus for the first of several meetings to identify ways that they can work together to sustain access to education and continue to increase educational achievement in the region. UTEP also played host to nearly 8,000 fifth- and seventh-grade students from area school districts in a unique effort to show them the importance of higher education in reaching their American dreams.
Fortunately, El Paso already has achieved considerable success in its effort to cultivate the talent in the Paso del Norte region and increase the number of college graduates. For the past 20 years, UTEP has led the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a Pre K-16 partnership, in the shared vision of increasing access to educational opportunities for young people from every background.
The Collaborative has helped create an environment where young people in El Paso are outpacing their counterparts in other areas of Texas in high-school graduation rates, and higher education participation and success. It’s because of innovative ideas like the El Paso Collaborative and unparalleled leadership in the community that UTEP was selected by Opportunity Nation to be a part of the Higher Education Council, a group of only 12 colleges and universities in America that are creating best practices for improving opportunity at the ground level.
But as leaders who participated in the Opportunity Days meeting learned, we still have more work to do. The region’s educators, business and civic leaders must work together to attract quality employers that seek to capitalize on the highly talented graduates of UTEP and increase regional workplace demand for more skilled, high-paying jobs and careers.
UTEP will lead the local effort to create a climate where everyone can achieve their potential by aligning educational access and attainment with professional employment opportunities that promote long-term economic growth for its region. At the same time, Opportunity Nation will continue to hold up best practices like the El Paso Collaborative that can motivate collective action in other communities struggling to improve opportunity.
Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. It’s our responsibility to see that the path to prosperity and success is clearly marked for them, and that the on-ramp is open to anyone who wants to make the journey.
Diana Natalicio is the president of the University of Texas at El Paso, and Mark Edwards is the executive director of Opportunity Nation.