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After less than four months on the job, the new president of the University of Houston-Downtown has launched an agenda to reshape the school’s future.

First up: creating admission standards for a school that historically has accepted anyone with a high school diploma or GED.

William Flores, who arrived on campus last summer, said he is committed to non-traditional students and those who need a helping hand.

“But we also want our students to be more successful,” he said, and attending a four-year school may not be good for students who require more than a few remedial courses. Instead, he said, those students would do better at a community college, where they can prepare for college-level work at a fraction of the cost.

At least some students support the idea, hoping it will improve the school’s reputation.

“I get a lot of trash talk from students that go to other schools,” said Laura Sanchez, a biology major who is president of the student government at UH-Downtown. “I feel like I have to defend it because of our open admissions.”

UH-Downtown is one of only two Texas universities that offer open admission. The other is the University of Texas at Brownsville. Texas Southern University dropped its open admissions policy in 2008.

Community colleges generally have open admissions.

Getting more students into college is considered crucial in a state that economists and education experts agree is short on college-educated adults, threatening its ability to attract new jobs. But access to college isn’t enough, said Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes.

“If students aren’t prepared to do university work, you’re not doing them any favors by admitting them,” he said. “Access without preparation is not opportunity.”

Raising graduation rates

Paredes said neither he nor the Higher Education Coordinating Board need to approve the expected change in admission standards. But he likes the idea, which he said should raise graduation rates.

And that’s the real issue, he said. Just 13.4 percent of students who entered UH-Downtown as freshmen in 2002 had earned a degree six years later. The state average is 56 percent.

The Faculty Senate is considering the issue now, and Flores said he hopes to present a proposal to regents in February. Regents adopted admission standards for UH-Victoria this month in anticipation of the school’s first freshman class next fall, and Flores said UH-Downtown likely will use something similar. (UH-Victoria now offers only upper-level and graduate courses.)

Most of this year’s freshmen at UH-Downtown would have qualified under those standards, Flores said. And some of those who didn’t could be admitted based on an individual review.

“We’re not setting criteria as a barrier, but as a guide,” said Flores, who served as deputy secretary of the New Mexico Higher Education Department and as interim president at New Mexico State University before being hired as president at UH-Downtown.

Any new standards would take effect in fall 2011.

He and regents will have to consider the impact on enrollment, since state funding is based on enrollment. About two-thirds of UH-Downtown students transfer from elsewhere and wouldn’t be affected by the change, Flores said.

Freshman enrollment at TSU dropped by 13 percent when its admission requirements took full effect, but overall enrollment was up 5 percent this fall as more students remained enrolled between their first and second years and more transfer students enrolled.

Many faculty members support admission standards but see that as just a start.

“Admission standards, they’re not the end of the story,” said Michelle Moosally, an associate professor of English and president of the Faculty Senate.

Faculty know their students don’t fit the traditional mold — between 18 and 22, middle class, living on campus. For one thing, UH-Downtown doesn’t have dorms. Seventy-five percent of students are 22 or older. About 36 percent are Hispanic, 28 percent are African-American and 10 percent are Asian.

Adult classes to stay

Faculty want to ensure that admission standards don’t change UH-Downtown’s reputation as “a university of access,” Moosally said. But they also want to help more students graduate.

Despite the expected change, Flores said UH-Downtown likely will always offer some developmental education, especially for older adults returning to school after years out of a classroom.

“College math and science, they’re like a foreign language,” he said. “If you don’t use them, you lose them.”

But he and Paredes also agree that universities also need to work with public school districts to ensure that more students are prepared for college work when they graduate from high school.

“It’s very frustrating for parents, because their child can graduate with a 3.5 GPA and need four remediation courses,” Flores said.