As demand for higher education increases, Texas A&M University-Central Texas is helping area students using a unique academic model — it only serves students in their junior year or higher.
The university offers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but it does not offer introductory classes. All of its students begin with at least two years of college already under their belts, often from either Temple College or Central Texas College in Killeen.
A&M-Central Texas has gone through several evolutions over the past four decades. It was originally founded as American Technological University in 1973. ATU was a private college started by community leaders concerned that Central Texas was falling behind the state average in the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees earned by residents.
“Even though we’re surrounded by many fine four-year institutions, they weren’t necessarily accessible to the population,” said Karén Clos, director of advancement and alumni services. “Baylor is in Waco; UMHB (University of Mary Hardin-Baylor) is local but it’s a private school — it might not have been financially accessible to everyone. So there was a tremendous push to bring a four-year public institution to this area.”
In 1989, ATU became the University of Central Texas. Then it was Tarleton State University-Central Texas in 1999. Finally, it joined the Texas A&M system to acquire its current name in 2009.
“When we talk about ourselves the three words that we use are affordable, accessible, and quality,” Clos said. “Quality is obvious because we’re part of A&M, but the accessible part is very purposeful.”
Pride in the university’s evolving history is reflected in the school’s logo, which features four stars for each school incarnation over a flaming torch. At night, people who drive by the campus can see a sculpture by Salado Glassworks of that torch hanging in a front stairwell.
“We want to be accessible to everybody in the region,” Clos said. “So as an upper-level institution, we translate accessibility to mean when you go to a community college within this region and you do your first two years of your gen-ed core, you come here to finish.”
A&M-Central Texas is currently the only upper-level university in the state, although there have been several in the past.
“It’s a very unique mission — upper-level universities,” Clos said. “There’s only three in the whole United States, and we’re one of those.”
University President Marc Nigliazzo said that he does not think the university should grow to encompass freshman and sophomore years.
“This has been a dream that this region has had for over 30 years,” Nigliazzo said. “We really want to make the upper-level concept work. We have two great community college partners in the county, plus the relationship that’s building with Austin Community College — we can increase accessibility, we can lower costs.”
Other upper-level Texas universities in the past have all eventually expanded to include a freshman and sophomore year.
“Having spent a good part of my career ... at two-year colleges, I’m always telling people ‘We’re now the university that I was always looking for,’” Nigliazzo said. “I had some good partnerships with four-year schools, but could never quite get the relationship that I really wanted, primarily because in some respects we were competing with one another.”
A unique niche
Clos said that there is no real need for A&M-Central Texas to add the earlier years, and Nigliazzo expressed concern that competing with the local community colleges could hurt the school’s mission of being affordable and accessible.
“There is no competition here,” Nigliazzo said. “My role is to work with CTC and TC and as many students as want to stay in the area — if they can go off to UT or A&M or out of state or go to Baylor or go anywhere they want to go, that’s great — I just want them to go to school.”
Nigliazzo has been president of the university for seven years. He previously was the president of Temple College, and also worked for the University of New Mexico and Arizona Western College.
Clos said that if a student goes to community college for two years full time and then transfers to A&M-Central Texas for two years they will pay less than $20,000 total for their four-year degree.
“We are the second most affordable in the state of Texas among 38 institutions,” Clos said. “And the Statesman identified us as ‘the bargain of the bunch.’”
The university sits on 672 acres of donated land, and has hopes of growing in size, even if it does not add freshman and sophomore years.
“We started out about 2,000 students,” Nigliazzo said. “We were almost 2,800 last spring. I think the next plateau for us, of significance, is 3,000 students.”
In 2016 the school had 200 students from Temple, up from 168 in 2009. The university has two main buildings now, with a third under construction. The three buildings are intended to hold a maximum of 4,000 students before the university will need to expand again.