University Leadership Network

For more than 50 years, Houston Endowment awarded Jones Scholarships. From the beginning this was a groundbreaking program: scholarships were equally divided between young men and women and provided to the top four students at every public high school in Houston at a time when schools were still segregated by race. The funds provided were more than sufficient to cover virtually every expense related to getting a college degree.

But when we took a closer look at the Jones Scholars Program in 2013, we realized that the world had changed dramatically over the past fifty years. Our scholarship dollars alone were no longer enough for our Jones Scholars to successfully navigate their way to and through college. Many of them also needed academic and social support.

We made the difficult decision to end the Jones Scholars Program, and we challenged ourselves to find a way to maintain its spirit and intent. We wanted to make it meaningful and relevant in today’s world.

The University Leadership Network (ULN) at the University of Texas at Austin challenges the assumption that many low-income or first-generation college students leave school because they aren’t cut out for college. In addition to addressing the more obvious barriers to college persistence – the financial and academic barriers – ULN offers a social-support structure that says to students, “We believe in you, and you belong here.”

In 2015, Houston Endowment approved support for three cohorts of Houston-area students participating in ULN. After seeing promising initial program results, we approved support for two additional cohorts. In homage to the former program, these UT students are called the “Jones ULN Scholars.”

We intended our early investment in ULN to help the new program establish a track record of success. And it has: ULN’s first cohort of students, the class of 2017, achieved a 55% four-year graduation rate, compared to the 33% rate predicted when this cohort first entered the university in 2013. The class of 2018 achieved a 57% four-year graduation rate. Although graduation rates won’t be final for the class of 2019 until September, they are on pace to exceed a 62% four-year graduation rate.

The Jones ULN Scholars are also exceeding expectations. The Jones ULN scholars have an average cumulative GPA that is well above the “good academic standing” requirement, and they are persisting at levels comparable to those of the UT student body overall. And the first cohort of Jones ULN scholars, who started UT in fall 2015, are expected to exceed the four-year graduation rate predicted when they first entered the university by almost 15 percentage points.

Through this grant, we are learning about the additional supports beyond financial aid that are necessary to achieve college persistence today: experiential learning opportunities and a supportive campus community.

Experiential learning, whether through internships, undergraduate research, or study abroad, helps connect students to tangible and practical ways in which they can demonstrate and hone their leadership and practical experience. This helps students visualize their academic and professional identity sooner and keeps them persisting on the path to timely graduation.

A supportive campus community involves keeping an eye out for students who are struggling and connecting them to the right resource at the right time without students having to ask for help. When students feel like they are seen and understood as whole people with complex lives, they can get the support they need and stay on track.

As both the K-12 and higher education systems continue to address the gaps that exist to support all students equitably in achieving college success, we are optimistic about early opportunities for broader adoption of lessons from ULN. And we hope that others will step up for Houston-area ULN scholars and ensure the continuation of this unique and effective program.