As a senior at Arlington’s Lamar High School, Ashley Rodriguez had dreams of going to college, but needed help getting there. “None of my parents or grandparents went to college, so I was stuck in the mud,” says Rodriguez, the oldest of eight children. “I didn’t know what to do.”
But a teacher saw Rodriguez struggling and encouraged her to go to the school’s GO Center, a University of Texas at Arlington-sponsored program where UTA students mentor high school students through hands-on workshops, presentations, and one-on-one counseling, guiding them through the college admissions process.
Ashley Rodriguez and her family celebrated at May’s commencement ceremonies, where she received her bachelor’s degree in political science. This fall, she heads to Georgetown Law School.
Thanks to the help she received through the GO Center, Rodriguez enrolled at UTA and now serves as a mentor at South Grand Prairie High School’s GO Center, helping others get into college. In May, Rodriguez earned her political science degree and this fall will begin studies at Georgetown Law School.
“I’m scared and excited,” she says. “It’s a dream for me.”
Texas needs more students like Ashley Rodriguez—ambitious young adults who have the advanced education and skills to keep the Texas economy humming through the end of this century and beyond.
In July 2015, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) adopted an overarching goal of having 60 percent of Texans between the ages of 25 and 34 earn postsecondary degrees or certificates by 2030.
Only 38.5 percent of Texans in that age group currently have such credentials.
The goal is part of the THECB’s 15-year strategic plan called 60x30TX, written by a committee of business and higher education leaders looking to keep the Lone Star State’s economy strong.
According to the report, Texas ranks fifth in the world in educational attainment among residents 55 and 64 years old, but that ranking falls to 25th in the world for residents aged between 25 and 34.
“The strength of Texas’ economy is our workforce,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in announcing the THECB’s 60x30TX plan in November. “A skilled and educated workforce gives Texas a competitive advantage.
“But for Texas to continue growing and to be a leader in the global economy, we need more students graduating with a two- or four-year degree,” Gov. Abbott said. “Texas will be better because of our new focus on 60x30, and our brightest years are yet to come.”
LEADING THE DISCUSSION
On April 5, the University hosted the first comprehensive regional gathering of North Texas leaders to discuss how to work together to achieve the 60x30TX goals. Attendees convened for a full day of engaging speakers, interactive breakout sessions, and creative brainstorming and problem-solving.
Dr. Raymund Paredes, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, spoke at the 60x30TX Conference.
THECB Commissioner Raymund Paredes highlighted the many successes Texas has accomplished since 2000’s Closing the Gaps initiative. In the 15 years since it was implemented, the state awarded 2.6 million undergraduate credentials, and preliminary data indicates that Texas met 96 percent of its goal of 630,000 enrollments in postsecondary institutions. Growing enrollments helps contribute to producing more graduates. UTA exceeded the goals set for the institution in the Closing the Gaps campaign for Fall 2015 enrollment by 2.8 percent.
While Hispanic and African-American enrollment has doubled, Dr. Paredes noted that the challenge to educators now is to increase Hispanic enrollment fast enough to keep up with the growing Hispanic share of the state’s population.
“Unless we dramatically improve education attainment in the Latino community, our overall education attainment will go down.”
“The paradox of Texas education is that if you look at the demographic trends in Texas, the population that’s growing the fastest—obviously the Latino community—is also the least well-educated,” he said. “Unless we dramatically improve education attainment in the Latino community, our overall education attainment will go down.”
He also set forth key strategies for addressing the overarching components of the 60x30TX plan: ensuring students have the support they need to see their degrees through to completion, helping them to develop marketable skills, and decreasing student debt.
Echoing that call to action, UTA President Vistasp M. Karbhari noted at the conference that the shifting demographics of the state require systemwide changes.
“Numbers alone demand we change our focus and enhance our capabilities,” he said. “Rapid changes in demographics require new methods of engagement, better and more focused levels of support, and enhanced outreach to communities, including families, in ways that they need for success rather than the methods that we’ve used for decades.”
Dr. Karbhari also said pre-K through grade 12 and two-year and four-year college educators need to work together to make the transition from high school to college seamless. He cited examples of UTA’s work with the Arlington Independent School District in this area, including the STEM Academy and a new Teacher Academy announced in March.
“We need to look at the challenge in front of us and develop some answers,” he said.
CONCRETE NEXT STEPS
Throughout the day, conference attendees attended breakout sessions that addressed the four goals of the 60x30TX plan. The topics centered on a variety of goal imperatives, including teacher preparation, early admissions counseling, serving a diverse student body, providing experiential learning, early financial education for students and families, and more.
In her address to attendees, Interim Provost Linda K. Johnsrud outlined related goals that would support the 60x30TX plan, including achieving the goal of Texas institutions of higher education producing 550,000 graduates in a single year in 2030. This goal calls for students who have completed advanced certificates or associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees, and ensuring that all graduates have marketable skills.
“I hope each of us is leaving with one concrete next step,” Dr. Johnsrud said. “We can do this, and if your next step is to call someone else and say, ‘I want to follow up on that idea,’ excellent.”
In her remarks at the day’s luncheon, Kati Haycock, CEO of the Education Trust, stressed that the quality of action toward completing the 60x30TX goals is immensely important because the repercussions of not meeting the goals will have ramifications that echo throughout the country.
“We’ve made a lot of progress on the access side, but access isn’t the only issue—there’s a very big question about access to what,” she said. Noting a troubling trend toward a widening gap in educational attainment for underserved students, she continued, “A continuation of those patterns threatens the very health of our democracy. Getting it right is not only important to our future economic competitiveness, but it is also important to returning our country to the principles we hold dear.” Haycock stressed urgency and intentionality in addressing the goals of the 60x30TX plan.
In his closing remarks, Paredes said the conference provoked stimulating discussions focused on attaining the goals of 60x30TX.
“I can’t imagine a better kickoff to spread the word about 60x30 Texas,” he added.
UTA is already involved with a variety of initiatives to nurture and prepare K-12 students for higher education—from the University Crossroads program, which focuses on college awareness, financial aid workshops, and SAT and math prep, to the University’s award-winning Pathways to College Access and Readiness program that has served over 23,000 students and 3,000 parents through its 24 GO Centers in nine partner districts.
Now, more solutions are on the way.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education awarded UTA a five-year, $2.62 million grant to enhance services for transfer and other non-traditional students and help more underserved students earn college degrees.
The grant funded a new I.D.E.A.S. Center—which stands for Innovation, Diversity, Excellence, Access, and Success—as a resource to increase graduation and retention rates among transfer, Hispanic, lower-income, and other historically underserved students. The center, located on the second floor of the Central Library in an area called the Academic Plaza, hosts an assortment of student support services.
UTA’s Dr. Carla Amaro-Jiménez is developing programs to help students prepare for college and complete their degrees.
Carla Amaro-Jiménez—assistant professor in the College of Education and co-principal investigator on the grant with Maria Martinez-Cosio, assistant vice provost for faculty affairs—says the center will enable mentors to work with students who are struggling or need extra guidance and to help them overcome barriers to success. She believes the center also will further instill in students a sense of belonging.
“We are creating an environment in which all students can learn and grow as they progress to graduation,” Dr. Amaro-Jiménez says. “We want them to feel like they belong, like they’re home when they come to school even if they don’t live on campus. We want to connect with them on a more personal level.”
COMPLETING THE PATHWAY
In past surveys of GO Center participant families, officials learned that even earlier interventions in middle and elementary schools could help steer students to postsecondary degrees. For the last three years, Amaro-Jiménez helped lead a residential summer program at UTA aimed at exposing rising ninth graders to college and encouraging them to pursue a college preparatory high school curriculum.
While the program has been popular, Amaro-Jiménez said it’s been retooled and expanded to reach more than 500 students this summer and cover topics such as how to read a syllabus and sharpen one’s study habits.
In the coming school year, the program will also place more mentors in 100 middle schools in nine North Texas school districts to discuss getting ready for college in a pilot program funded by a grant from AT&T.
“We’re trying to complete that pathway so that by the time students get to high school, they’ll already know who they can talk to for support,” Amaro-Jiménez says.
Walking across UTA’s campus, Ashley Rodriguez occasionally runs into students she once mentored at the GO Center on their way to class. She sometimes remembers how she almost sold herself short, but ultimately decided to take the path that led to a college degree and now law school.
“The biggest barrier I see for students is access,” she says. “If we can show them how they can access higher education, they can get here.” And Rodriguez shows that access can lead to success.