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Geography and economics can be tough lessons in the Rio Grande Valley. Texas’ southern border — underemployed, isolated and economically challenged — is also the state’s youngest region, according to the 2000 Census. As the youth population grows, the region’s two universities have lagged behind. And campuses outside South Texas are out of reach for students like 21-year-old Alex Salinas, whose tight budget has no room for dorm rooms. “I’m lucky I have money left over to pay for my books,” he says. A finance major at the University of Texas at Brownsville, Salinas is the son of migrant farm workers and the first in his family to go to college. He juggles three jobs, collects federal grant money and relies on scholarships to pay for tuition, books and gas for the 20-minute drive from his parents’ house. With a combined student body of 23,000, the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas-Brownsville are the only accredited universities in the tip of Texas’ tail. They strain to provide books and professors, laboratories and majors. The University of Texas-Austin library shelves hold 146 books per student. In Brownsville, 17 books per student are jammed into the campus’ only library. “We’re trying to do the best we can with the little we have,” librarian Mabel Hockaday says. In a state of brute geographic proportions, most of the universities are clustered in the central metropolises — Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Remote campuses are scattered through the plains and forests. But for students in South Texas — a region vaguely understood to mean San Antonio and all points south — most schools are too far to commute. And in the state’s poorest region, most families lack cash for room and board. Tensions about education simmered for decades before taking form in 1987, when border Latinos sued the state. The class action lawsuit accused Texas of building geographic and economic barriers that blocked Hispanics from earning higher degrees. “Say it was geography, say it was perception,” said Juliet Garcia, president of the University of Texas-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. “But a predominantly Hispanic part of the state was disenfranchised. That’s a fact.” In 1992, a state court in Brownsville agreed that lawmakers had failed to provide a quality system of colleges along the border. The case was reversed in 1992, but by then legislators already were shuffling money southward via the South Texas Border Initiative. Since 1991, that program has pumped $440 million into University of Texas branches in the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso and San Antonio. There are no plans for a traditional medical school or a law school. Students still face shortfalls in the undergraduate curriculum, and are offered a limited number of master’s programs. “We’re trying to redress a historical problem,” said Monty Jones, a spokesman for the University of Texas System. “It’s important to realize that we’re not through.” A 19th century army base, the Brownsville campus collects as much money per capita as any other state university — but Garcia says it isn’t enough. Equal funding isn’t really equal, she argues, when her university started the race 100 years behind. “You just have to look around this university to see the history of neglect,” she said. “They say I’m greedy. I say I don’t meet the criteria for the word. Greed means you’ve got a lot and want more.” The state gives more money to universities with graduate programs and costly science and technology courses. “The richer schools with more expensive programs get more money,” says Al Kaufman, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund who represented the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit. “It’s the vicious cycle type of thing.” Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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