WESLACO, RGV – A total of 100 DACA students in the RGV will receive full scholarships to IDEA-U as a part of Southern New Hampshire University’s initiative to educate 1,000 DACA students over the next five years.

IDEA hosted an event Wednesday at their headquarters in Weslaco and sat down with the President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), Paul LeBlanc. During the conversation, he said the national discourse around DACA students is often the story of a student who is at the top of his/her class, gets accepted into an Ivy League school, but cannot go. While these are important and inspiring stories, the target audience for SNHU’s initiative are students whose life styles do not fit the traditionally setting.

“[Many] of the students we’re meeting with are parents, have to work full time and help take care of their families. They need the flexibility that this [opportunity] affords,” Le Blanc said. “[These students] don’t have the luxury of the traditional … program, not because they are lacking, but because their life styles don’t fit. This is really a program for the student whose life will not lend itself to a more traditionally structured program.”

Leading the conversation was Phillip Garza, chief college and diversity officer of IDEA Public Schools and co-founder of IDEA-U. According to Garza, students growing up in the top economic quartile of the U.S., families earning over $108,000, have a 77 percent chance of earning a college degree by the age of 24. However, for students growing up in the bottom economic quartile, families earning less than $35,000, there is only a 9 percent change of earning a college degree by the age of 24.

“The problem is all too often low income kids, first generation kids and minority kids have not had access to college–to getting there, to staying there and to graduate. We, here at IDEA-U, asked the questions: what if we did college a new way, what if we did college a different way and what if we did college a third way,” Garza said.

“With IDEA-U, we took the best of the traditional system–the relationships, the mentorships, the being part of the community that can do it alongside with you as well as the best of the online platform–the modest tuition, competency-based learning, the ability to move swiftly through your degree because of mastering and we put it together in a hybrid space.”

According to Esther Rodriguez, co-founder and director of IDEA-U, there are currently 72 students IDEA-U is supporting. Within the next week, the center will support another 37 students, bringing the headcount up to 109. For the next school year, 2018-2019, Weslaco will welcome an additional 100 students, in Aug. 20, IDEA-U will open a Brownsville location for another 100 students and the 100 DACA students will be evenly split between the Weslaco and Brownsville locations.

“IDEA-U is going to give students who have not have had an access point to college an opportunity to pursue higher education. I think in this country all too often we have an ideological problem when it comes to college–that college is still for the academically elite or the fiscally elite,” Garza said.

“We don’t believe that at IDEA-U. We believe that a college degree is a necessary tool for upward mobility and a thriving democracy. So, we want to create the conditions where we are democratizing higher education by giving more low income, first generation and minorities access to the American dream by first completing their college degree.”

The IDEA-U facility features boardrooms, cubicles, a nursing room and the equipment normally found in a school setting such as laptops, desktops, unlimited printing and access to reliable wifi. Rodriguez told the Rio Grande Guardian the idea behind IDEA-U is supporting students through the completion of their online degree by also providing in-person support.

“Every student gets assigned an advisor that works with them from the time that they set foot on our campus for orientation through the time that they walk the stage. Other methods of support include 30-minute advisement sessions every week where the advisor either identifies gaps in their learning or any challenges that may be getting in the way of academics,” Rodriguez said.

“We do our best to kind of recreate the community environment that they would see in the traditional higher educational setting. So, we have socials and we’re trying our luck at students organizations.”

Southern New Hampshire University

About 15 years ago, prior to LeBlanc’s role as president, student enrollment at SNHU was at 2,500. Now, 102,000 students pursuing their degree and 140,000 others are learners–students who are either in high school, taking dual enrollment courses or are non-degree seekers. In the future, SNHU intends to do more.

“We have the most ambitious attempt to bring american college degrees to refugee camps–College for America model/Competency-based model. Our goal is 50,000 refugees in five years. We’ve spent three years in Rwanda and we’ve just opened up in Malawi, Kenya, South Africa, and later this year, Lebanon,” LeBlanc said.

Not only is SNHU working to provide access to higher education for refugees, but DACA students too. With the support of The Shapiro Foundation and TheDream.US, 1,000 DACA students will receive full scholarships within the next five years. LeBlanc said a group of philanthropists came forward with this idea, however, Donald E. Graham, is now pushing to increase that number.

“I think in some ways this is the epicenter of the war for America’s future. The fight that you fight here today is really more about recognizing that the talent is universally distributed, but opportunity is not. That we cannot afford to squander the resources, the talent and the skills that abound populations across the country,” LeBlanc said.

“This is a population that looks more and more like America of the future so what you do here today really sets the template and sets the path for later. This is also a place where our political parties are fighting a different kind of war–one in which we’re talking about building walls instead of bridges and one in which we refuse to recognize that this is a country built on immigrants.”

IDEA-U has chosen 15 out of the 100 DACA slots. They will be working with organizations such as La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), Brownsville ISD and the housing authority to fill up the remaining spots.

“We’ll look anywhere and everywhere where we can get an access point to undocumented students so that this promise does not go unfilled, but it goes fulfilled,” Garza said. “So that one year from now, IDEA-U can communicate that Southern New Hampshire University tasked us with educating 100 DACA students for free and we delivered on that promise.”