AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A plan to merge two South Texas universities into one and create a new medical school cleared one of its last hurdles Wednesday night with a final vote of approval by the state Senate.
The unanimous vote sends Gov. Rick Perry a project that has enjoyed broad support among higher education officials and residents in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the fastest-growing and poorest areas of the country.
Perry, who is expected to sign the bill into law, called the vote "a historic moment for the future students who will fill the classrooms, proudly call this university their alma mater, and create a brighter future for themselves and their families."
The new university would merge Texas-Pan American in Edinburg and Texas-Brownsville and has been informally dubbed the University for the Americas in the Rio Grande Valley. The University of Texas System approved the plan in December and pledged $100 million to the project.
Supporters say the new university, and most notably the medical school, are critically needed to serve the education and health care needs in the region along the Texas-Mexico border. The new school is projected to enroll about 28,000 students, employ 7,000 people and generate $11 million in research expenditures.
Residents have lobbied for years to get a medical school in the region, and plans were already in place to use UT System health facilities in Cameron and Hidalgo counties. University officials and local politicians who pushed the issue believe it will result in more doctors practicing on the border and have a positive impact on overall health in one of the most impoverished and medically underserved parts of the country.
More than 1.2 million people live in Cameron and Hidalgo counties, and about one in three live below the poverty line. It's a fast-growing young population, about one-third of which is below the age of 18. In addition to allowing local students interested in medicine to study close to home, supporters say a medical school situated on the border could eventually draw students from Central and South America.
University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa has said the new campus would be one of the largest Hispanic-serving institutions of higher education in the country.
The university would be eligible to gain "emerging research university" status, which would allow it to compete for state money that is supposed to help schools attract research and private grants. System officials said it also would be allowed to receive money from the multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund.