Cindy Muñoz sits in an auditorium on the UT Austin campus, watching a presentation on how to enroll for classes she’ll take when she begins her freshman year next month.
Muñoz says she wants to major in political communications. Up until Tuesday, she had planned to take out $56,000 in student loans to pay for her degree.
“I knew I was going to go into student debt,” she says. “I had that already in my head because my sister went to college and she had to take out loans, and she’s still dealing with loans today and she’s 38 years old.”
Then UT announced that starting in fall 2020, all in-state undergraduates coming from low- and middle-income families would receive financial aid. A student from a family making up to $65,000 will have all their tuition and fees covered, while a student whose family makes between $65,000 and $125,000 will get partial aid.
The average cost to attend UT – including tuition, books and living expenses – is a little over $27,000. Tuition is almost half the cost. The aid will go to all undergrads who qualify, including those already enrolled. UT.
Muñoz's single mother works as a housekeeper and does other odd jobs to pay the bills. Muñoz says Texas A&M and the University of Houston offered her more money, but UT was her dream school.
"I’ve been wanting to go here since I was 5," she says.
Now, she qualifies for the free tuition and will take out significantly less in loans to help pay for living expenses.
She says the financial help makes her feel more welcome at UT.
"It kind of makes me feel like I chose the right school," Muñoz says. "They look past monetary issues and they’re like – 'You want to do this? We’re going to help you out.'"
The majority of students from her high school in Houston come from low-income families, she says, and many don't see big schools like UT as an option.
“Not many of us are in the mindset that we’re going to go to a big four-year university,” she says. “A lot of us go to a community college because we can’t afford it. So knowing that UT ... set money aside to help students like me and students like my peers, I think that’s really amazing.”
The news also impressed Sean Huckleberry, a graduate student in the UT School of Nursing. He graduated from UT in 2008 with a lot of debt. If this aid had available back then, he says, he would have qualified for free tuition. Instead, he has spent the last 10 years paying off his undergrad loans and taking on new loans for his graduate degrees.
“It’s amazing that UT is taking that step to help people in that situation and I would hope that they would continue to add people into that qualification,” he says. “Giving more people access to higher education is always a good idea in my opinion.”