Delivered by UNT President Neal Smatresk
Feb. 3, 2021

Watch President Smatresk's State of the University address

We had a great year last year, setting records in nearly all the metrics we measure. While COVID has taken its toll, we're on track for another record-setting year. Before laying out our strategic planning initiatives for this spring and next year, I want to thank all of you who've worked so very hard to keep our students and community moving forward. I stand in awe of your commitments to our mission and our students. It's because of you that we've had a successful fall and winter term, and continued enrollment growth this spring.

Our faculty and staff are the backbone of this university, and their work has been nothing short of remarkable. Because of you and the planning we've put into place, we hope to see continued record enrollment and graduation this spring. With the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, we've received, we also to plan to deploy more COVID testing, more support services for students who are taking online and remote classes, and more emergency grant and aid for our students to help them as they try to stay in college and realize their career dreams.

As COVID vaccinations reach more and more of our community, we'll begin to restore a sense of normalcy on our campus. And hope to see more in-person activities that allow us to engage our students and further promote their progress.

But it's not time to rest on our laurels. We're entering a new landscape for higher education that will call on us to adapt and innovate faster than ever before. And we need to be nimble and address the challenges we're facing. In short, now is the time to initiate bold new plans to keep UNT at the forefront of innovation and education on a national level.

As we look forward to how we're going to continue to grow and thrive as a community and as a university, I want to make sure you all know, we're going to continue to implement and work towards virtually all of the strategic planning initiatives we committed to last year at this time.

In areas like Scholarly Activity and Innovation, we're going to continue to push forward with our plans by hiring 74 more faculty, increasing the number of large-scale collaborative and multi-institutional grants we receive, renovating our Science Research Building and submitting Legislative Appropriation Requests to advance our research goals.

We're also going to continue to evolve our People and Processes strategic plan initiatives. With a focus on continued staff development, overhauling our web management system, continued diversity training, improving our HR processes collaboratively with our System colleagues, building a new multicultural center, and planning the campus of the future.

Of course, we're going to Empower our Students by continuing to expand access to classes, and the experiential learning they need to reach their career goals. Improving professional development and career development and expanding the many efforts we have to improve student retention and success.

As we make progress in these planning areas, we need to look ahead and address new and urgent challenges around declining numbers of college qualified students. We also need to be aware of forces that threaten higher educational attainment like:

  • the growing national skepticism about whether students need a college education,
  • how well we prepare students for an unpredictable job market,
  • the need to educate those students whose academic preparation might've suffered from their remote and online experiences in high school, and maybe most importantly
  • the financial challenges families and our students face, which has been significantly exacerbated by this pandemic.

These challenges taken collectively mean that now more than ever parents and students are assessing the cost of higher education balanced against the returns they might expect when they graduate. With growing student debt becoming a bellwether issue. Finding ways to address these issues are key pieces of the puzzle for us and our future.

This fall, incoming student enrollment fell as freshmen took a gap year or simply couldn't make the financial commitment to go onto college. And many transfer students, arguably the most financially impacted by this pandemic decided not to make the commitment to attend a four year institution.

We've seen overall retention improve by 3% this year. Now, while some of this is due to our comprehensive retention efforts, the more than $16 million we've already given out as grants and aid is also helping students stay in school.

So it should come as no shock to all of you that money matters!

We've watched our students struggle to stay in school. We've witnessed that they have food and housing insecurity. We see student debt rising nationally. 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.

To meet this goal, we're going to launch a series of steps as part of a comprehensive affordability initiative that will be our major focus this spring. So let's see what we've done and what we're planning.

As a first step towards helping our students afford a college education, we haven't raised tuition the past two years, and we're not going to raise tuition next fall. This three-year hiatus certainly puts us in a more competitive posture that we've been in recently, and makes a difference for students who want to come to UNT.

We've also implemented a major new effort geared toward expanding access for our students, making their dream of a university education more affordable by reallocating how we award scholarships to first-time and transfer students.

Our new scholarships will expand the number of students eligible for awards and increase access by moving more funds to well-qualified students who haven't traditionally been scholarship eligible. This should not only increase the number of students we enroll, but will actually increase the number of students we have in the top 25%. This really matters to our NRFU in U.S News & World Report rankings.

Similarly, our transfer scholarship levels have become non-competitive in the region. This, combined with the challenges of COVID, have led to declining transfer admissions. We addressed this in the fall by creating the best transfer scholarship package in North Texas. And this'll help a lot more students gain access to an affordable education at UNT, and increase our overall level of competitiveness and transfer enrollment.

We've lowered barriers for incoming students by eliminating the need to take ACTs and SATs. And instead, we're using a formula based off class rank and GPA, which are better indicators of college success.

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're going to make a UNT education more affordable, and we'll also limit student debt, which is a major strategic goal.

However scholarships aren't the only thing we have to do to make sure our students have an affordable education and stay enrolled. After great input from an extensive set of focus group discussions, we're moving forward to implement the following initiatives.

First, our students commonly have to deal with the complexities of paying tuition and fee bills, receiving financial aid and managing their expenses as the semester winds down. It can be frustrating and confusing for them as they're referred from office to office. This year we're going to create an integrated student financial support center to help students push the easy button when they need assistance. This will involve building on our Start Green, State Green initiative. And they'll create a common interface between services offered by financial aid, money management and student accounting. By creating a seamless experience, we can avoid the UNT runaround, ease the anxiety that our students feel around their finances and help them limit debt.

To make this happen, we need these three units to act as a single cohesive one-stop and create integrated technology and web resources, so students can get all the help they need with the click of a button. We also need seamless phone and virtual support, and support at the college level through advisors who are most often the frontline and early warning system for our students.

Next, we're going to turn our attention to the high cost of textbooks. After listening to our focus groups, we realized that the crushing cost of books and learning materials are creating real challenges for our students. We have hardworking and dedicated faculty all over this university who've been helping students by creating low or no cost learning materials. And I'm incredibly thankful for their efforts. A great example of how we can help our students comes from Dr. Amy Petros, a senior lecturer in the department of chemistry. She found that students in our general chemistry classes were struggling with paying for textbooks and expensive homework systems, which was affecting their learning. She used the Texas Higher Education coordinating board's, Open Educational Resources Grant Program to support the redesign of her courses using exclusively Open Educational Resources or OER materials. And to date she's already saved a 1,000 students, nearly $300,000. As Amy said, "If I can make a decision and put some more work into my courses so my students can eat a well-balanced meal or make that car payment, I'm going to do it."

As we look towards helping our students reduce their textbook costs, we know that we won't be able to use library eBooks or OER for every class. And that this is a process with many options to consider. This semester, we'll begin working with our community accelerating our efforts and reducing costs for our students

  • by looking at student textbook spends,
  • by significantly incentivizing departments and faculty to look for innovative solutions to lower course material costs with a focus on high enrollment multi-section classes, and
  • by helping innovative faculty and departments with meaningful support to access high quality pre-existing OER resources, or to create their own curated collections.

We intend to invest significantly to advance affordable learning materials on our campus. And I'm calling on every department to join us in this effort. Saving even a few hundred dollars every semester can have a major impact helping our students pay the rent or get gas for their commute.

Next at UNT, we currently have a number of efforts to address the growing issues we see with food and housing insecurity through our Division of Student Affairs. Of course our food pantry program, now generously supported by a five-year gift from Kroger, has done remarkably well and alleviates some of the challenges around food. But the pandemic has really exacerbated this growing crisis. We plan to implement a number of initiatives that can alleviate food and housing insecurity by:

  • expanding our new student Housing and Dining Awards program,
  • becoming more flexible and allowing students to commute by making the waiver process better understood,
  • creating an in-house, short-term emergency housing program, and
  • partnering with local apartment operators to provide intermediate term housing,
  • provide locker access and nap options for students on campus, and finally,
  • we want to create two new dining donation programs whereby students can donate a full day of dining or flex dollars to fellow students who have food insecurity.

Next, we turn our attention to student employment. We currently employ over 3,300 student hourly employees, and 390 work study student employees. We know that working on campus leads to greater engagement, better student success and shortens the time to graduation. So this spring, we're going to consider how we can

  • 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 finally,
  • we want to improve the quality of the experience for our student employees.

So we're going to create a comprehensive analysis of student wages and hiring processes over this upcoming semester to find ways we can further optimize student employment with the resources we have. And the best match each student's career goals with the jobs that we have on campus. We'll also be assessing the impact of increasing student wages.

Now in parallel with this, we want to make sure that we're supporting our lowest paid staff members who've been working incredibly hard during this pandemic. Some of our frontline employees are not earning a living wage.

We need to show we care for our Mean Green family by making sure every UNT staff member earns a living wage. So effective March 1, all staff who've worked at UNT for 90 or more days will learn at least $12 an hour. And this is nearly a 30% increase in pay from our current minimum wage for some of our hardest working staff members. We'll further reanalyze compensation of our employees over the next year to develop a plan that continues to support our lowest paid staff.

Finally, along with helping our students financially and helping them to minimize their debt through our Student Money Management Center, we feel it's important to offer financial management services to all our full-time employees. SmartDollar is one of the best and highest regarded programs in the country offering online financial education and budget coaching to create financial well-being. The program helps employees make the right financial choices and offers support with the best tools to help them realize their goals. Our colleagues at the Health Science Center recently adopted this program and they've seen fantastic results. Starting this summer, we'll make this program available to all employees at no cost.

In the face of the trials of the past year, it's more important to emphasize that first and foremost we're defined by our values, caring, resilience, and creativity in the service to our community. This year, we've learned that we can take nothing for granted, and we're going to have to work hard as a team to meet our mission to help our students thrive and become the skilled and diverse workforce that we need here in Texas in the years to come. That is why we are here.

This plan hits a number of our major strategic objectives in significant and measurable ways. 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.

The net effect of our affordability initiatives is that we'll be able to have a greater impact on the lives of our faculty, staff and students, and meet the needs of Texas and it's evolving demographics. I ask you all to join with me in this new effort that will signify our dedication to our campus community, and show how we can be better together by making UNT a healthy, resilient, and caring institution. Thank you all for taking the time to listen to our plans and have a great semester. Go Mean Green!