EL PASO – Political and community leaders on the U.S.-Mexico border are promoting improved college graduation rates as a key to future economic development in the region.
The importance of increasing the number of college graduates to attract and fill high skill, high paying jobs was a big part of the discussion at the 2014 Border Legislative Conference Sept. 12 in El Paso. The conference brought together civic, political and business leaders from both sides of the border to talk about issues of trade, commerce, mobility and education.
“There must be a push for higher education in order for the border region to succeed,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas.
El Paso will need educated individuals to support future job growth among areas that require a college degree. According to the Texas Workforce Commission, there will be significant job growth in occupations such as computer software engineering and teaching positions that need to be filled by the year 2016.
El Paso has seen post-secondary opportunities increase in recent years with the expansion of the Texas Tech schools of medicine and architecture and the growth of the University of Texas at El Paso. Yet graduation rates at UTEP have consistently been lower than 40 percent. The graduation rate includes students who graduate in six years or less.
According to The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, El Paso’s enrollment rate for post-secondary education is well above the state average. However, it falls below the state average in degree attainment.
Low education levels mean low income in this community. The Greater Texas Foundation reports that 42 percent of the students attending the University of Texas at El Paso have a household income of less than $20,000.
El Paso is the seventh largest of 254 counties in Texas, with a population of more than 827,000, yet with per-capita income of $30,183, it ranked 230th in income for the state in 2012, according to data from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Funding a major challenge
Texas State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, pointed to inadequate funding of El Paso elementary and secondary schools as a significant challenge in preparing students to be college ready. In August, Texas State District Judge John Dietz ruled that the current funding mechanism for the Texas education system was unconstitutional because it provided inadequate funding, failed to distribute funds fairly among school districts, and effectively imposed a statewide property tax.
“We as residents in the border need to make sure that we get our fair share in order to keep our students and our workforce educated,” Rodriguez said.
Texas doesn’t have a state income tax and relies heavily on local property taxes in order to fund public school districts. This creates a gap between districts with high and low property values. Lynn Moak, the former Deputy Comissioner of the Texas Education Agency, testified during the case that the underfunding is especially difficult for districts with a large number of low income students. El Paso is one of the lowest income counties in all of Texas.
“As a parent with children that are in public schools in El Paso, I’m certainly interested in seeing that fairness and justice and equity is served by making sure that we treat all students and all districts the same,” said U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, (D-Texas).
Some educators attribute the gap between college enrollment and degree attainment to the lack of funding for student success initiatives and college readiness programs.
“We are trying to get as much output and success as we can with our students with half as much money. That is basically impossible,” said Manny Soto, former associate superintendent with the Ysleta Independent School District (YISD) in El Paso.
Building paths to success
Soto said that a student’s performance in algebra in high school is one of the primary indicators of how successful that student will be in college, but many students are not learning algebra well enough to pass it in college.
“If you look at kids going to EPCC and UTEP – the non-STEMs majors – the killer class for them that causes them to not to complete either community college or UTEP, is the one college algebra class they have to take,” he said. “It causes more than 60 percent non-completion rate for those taking that class for the first time.”
Currently many states have a standard algebra I test that freshmen and sophomore high school students must take. In Texas, students must take the STAAR Algebra I and II test., which is scored on three performance levels: advanced, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory. Only students who place in the advanced level are considered to be well prepared for college.
The statewide average for Hispanic students that score in the advanced level of the STAAR test is 12 percent. For students in El Paso county high schools the average is six percent.
However, one school – Del Valle High School in YISD – has outperformed other El Paso area high schools by a large margin. At Del Valle, 21 percent of students pass the algebra tests at the advanced level. No other school in El Paso has more than 10 percent of their students place in the advanced level.
Soto points to the changes made in the math program as the cause for the high scores. Del Valle students spend 90 minutes on algebra classes, while other schools spend just 45 minutes. He said educators at Del Valle have been enthusiastic about making the program work.
“What you have there is a team of teachers and administrators that hold each other accountable,” Soto said.
Despite the success of the program, increasing algebra competence alone doesn’t guarantee college success. More resources can help students become more well-rounded and better prepared for higher education challenges.
“Algebra is a key indicator of a student’s educational success going forward, but focusing a large part of your resources on one subject may hold students back in other areas,” Soto said.
Cutting the time it takes to graduate
Preparing students better before college will help shorten the time it takes them to graduate, Soto said.
“If we can get kids college ready, by scoring in the advanced level in algebra or in other areas, it ends remediation and developmental classes that students have to pay for and get no college credit,” said Soto.
A higher percentage of students at El Paso Community College and UTEP require developmental education than the average Texas student, according to the Texas Higher Education Board.
This has prompted partnerships between area school districts,UTEP and El Paso Community College to develop early college and other readiness programs to help high school students gain the skills necessary to succeed in higher education, said Gary Edens, vice president of student affairs at UTEP.
“The initiatives are young, but we’ve seen improving qualities of our students and a drop in developmental education for incoming students,” Edens said.
For El Paso’s O’Rourke, who organized the border conference, solving the education issues will lead to bringing more enterprise to the city so those who do complete college don’t have to go elsewhere to make a good living.
“We have to find a way to keep the young talented people home, but we need the jobs to do so,” O’Rourke said.