State of the University Spring 2021

UNT introduces affordability initiatives to promote access to higher education

As student debt grows nationwide and prospective students and parents assess the cost of higher education at record levels, UNT unveiled a number of affordability initiatives Feb. 3, that are meant to help students limit debt while still receiving a Tier One education as they earn their college degree.

During State of the University Part II, UNT President Neal Smatresk announced UNT will not raise tuition for the third consecutive year and outlined six new affordability initiatives focused on integrated student financial support, affordable learning materials, food and housing insecurity, on-campus student wages, staff minimum wage, and offering a budget coaching and financial management tool to full-time employees.

“We've watched our students struggle to stay in school, we've witnessed that they have food and housing insecurities, and we see student debt rising nationally,” Smatresk said. “It's crystal clear that for the good of our students, to help transform their lives, to maintain a robust economy in our state and beyond, and for our continued success, we have to reverse this downward financial spiral.”

The first prong of UNT's affordability initiative already is in place, as many scholarship awards have been reallocated for first-time and transfer students, expanding the number of students eligible for awards, as well as making transfer scholarships competitive with other regional schools. 

“The net impact of these changes in our approach is that we can serve our mission of giving more students, especially first-generation students and those with more need, the opportunity to stay in school. We will make a UNT education more affordable, and we also will limit student debt, which is a major strategic goal,” Smatresk said.

Additionally, UNT has committed to six new affordability initiatives to improve the financial well-being for students, faculty, and staff.

The first is the creation of an Integrated Student Financial Support Center, which will bring together technology and web resources to provide students seamless interactions with  Student Financial Services, Student Financial Aid and Scholarships and Student Money Management. By building on the Start Green, Stay Green initiative and creating an “easy button” for financial assistance, the Integrated Student Financial Support Center will provide students a common interface between areas, facilitate seamless phone and virtual support and limit the UNT runaround for students while also limiting debt. 

Additionally, Smatresk is calling on every department and faculty member to reduce the cost of course materials and textbooks for students by using Affordable Learning Materials whenever possible. After realizing expensive textbooks and homework systems were inhibiting her students' progress, chemistry lecturer Amy Petros redesigned her course using Open Education Resources, saving 1,000 students nearly $300,000 to date. UNT will help faculty access high quality pre-existing Open Educational Resources or create their own curated collections to reduce the costs for students.

“Even saving a few hundred dollars every semester can have a major impact helping our students pay the rent or get gas for their commute,” Smatresk said. 

To address food and housing insecurity, a growing need among many UNT students, Smatresk calls for the university to expand its housing and dining award programs, clarify the housing waiver process for FTIC commuters, establish a short-term emergency housing program, partner with apartment operators to provide intermediate-term housing, provide campus locker access and nap locations, and establish dining donation programs for peer-to-peer assistance.

Student employment and wages is another area under review and Smatresk announced UNT will conduct a comprehensive analysis of on-campus student wages and hiring processes to identify opportunities to make campus jobs more meaningful to student career progression, improve the process of finding a good match between student skills and departmental needs, make it easier for departments to hire qualified work study students, and to improve the quality of the experience for our student employees. UNT also will assess the impact of increasing student wages.

Another affordability initiative focuses on ensuring all full-time staff are paid a living wage, by increasing the minimum wage to $12/hour March 1 for full-time staff who have worked at UNT for 90 days or more.

“This is nearly a 30% increase in pay from our current minimum wage for some of our hardest working staff. We'll further analyze compensation of our employees over the next year to develop a plan that continues to support our lowest paid staff members,” Smatresk said.

The final initiative announced provides financial education and budget coaching to all full-time employees through the SmartDollar program. Currently in use by colleagues at the UNT Health Science Center, Smatresk said offering it to UNT employees is one way to help employees attain financial well-being.

“This plan hits a number of our major strategic objectives in significant and measurable ways,” Smatresk said. “It should improve retention, engage our students more deeply, limit or lower their debt, graduate students faster, improve our student-facing processes, and support the financial well-being of students, faculty, and staff members.”