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UT System returns to Valley for Vista Summit

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Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 11:30 am, Fri Jun 14, 2013.

EDINBURG — The University of Texas-Pan American will host the UT System’s second Vista Summit on Tuesday, focusing on decreasing time-to-degree and increasing college completion for Hispanic students.

And two new reports, one of which the summit will feature, have detailed how the growing Hispanic population in Texas could push the state’s already low college attainment rate even lower.

“If students in the various population segments are performing the same as they did in (the past) the number for the state’s going to go down,” said Larry Faulkner, former president of UT Austin and the Houston Endowment.

That private charitable foundation recently released a study showing only 1 in 5 Texas eighth-graders complete a postsecondary degree or certificate within six years of their expected high school graduation date.

But while 27.6 percent — more than 1 in 4 — of all white students reached that level of success, only 11.6 percent of Hispanic students did the same, the Endowment reported.

“Have we done any better educating Hispanic students? In the end, that’s the question,” Faulkner said, “and there are some hopeful signs.”

As a follow-up to the first Vista Summit at UT-Brownsville last fall, UT System officials will highlight the Endowment’s study and the Rio Grande Valley’s efforts to combat those disappointing numbers.

They hope to garner networking and financial assistance from political, education and philanthropic leaders from across the state and nation to help expand Hispanic student support before it’s too late.

“There is a strong college-going culture here in the Valley,” UTPA President Robert Nelsen said. “The difficulty is the lack of resources that people have.

“We get so many people coming to the university and after two years they simply have to go to work to help mom and dad put food on the table. That’s the biggest problem,” he said. “Hispanic students can succeed, but we’ve got to give them all the opportunities we can.”

 

‘AT THE TOP’

Despite increasing graduation and retention rates at Valley institutions of higher education, demographic trends across the state could overshadow any gains made along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Hispanics fueled 65 percent of the state’s population growth since 2000. And for the first time last year, they represented more than half, 50.2 percent, of all Texas public students.

However, only 17 percent of Hispanic adults in the state earned an associate degree or higher, compared with 34 percent of all Texas adults, according to a survey of U.S. Census data released last week by the national Excelencia in Education nonprofit group.

That report “just further confirmed what we all know is happening in the state,” Nelsen said. “It challenged us to do something, to look at President (Barack) Obama’s goal of bring us back to where we should be in graduating students: at the top.

“It seriously pointed out we cannot do this just by graduating the numbers we are right now.”

In 2000, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board set ambitious college access and success goals for Hispanic students in its “Closing the Gaps” plan. But more than a decade later, the THECB acknowledged it is “well below target” and “somewhat below target,” respectively, on both counts.

In fall 2010, the state should have had 236,606 more Hispanics enrolling in higher education compared to 2000; the THECB’s progress report posts only a 207,789 gain. And in degrees and certificates awarded, Texas fell below its 50,000 goal for 2010 by 2,250.

 

‘PEOPLE KNOW’

“People know what is happening,” Nelsen said. “The (THECB) has led the way on access, but now I think all of us are stopping to look at access as much as we are success.

“As you have a new student body come in with new needs, and you’re used to traditional delivery, you’ve got to redesign education.”

To do that, Nelsen and other UT System leaders will pitch four key concepts to philanthropists Tuesday:

>> Train “college transition coaches” to advise eighth-grade students until their sophomore year in college

>> Increase early college high schools — which allow students to earn college credit before graduating — across the Valley

>> Certify more public school instructors in the specific science and math fields they teach

>> Create a program to help undergraduate students earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree within four years

Nelsen admitted the summit will present a tall order. But creative solutions could help the Valley, state and nation prepare for 2018, when some experts believe 68 percent of all jobs will require some amount of postsecondary education.

“The Valley has been very interested in educational improvement for a long time,” said Faulkner, of the Houston Endowment.” There’s a kind of ambition here.

“It is one of the more interesting, adventuresome education leaders in the state.”

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Neal Morton covers education and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at nmorton@themonitor.com or (956) 683-4472.

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