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By Paul Bradley  /  
2016 September 20 - 06:26 am

Texas Stars

Top 100 Lists Show Gains in Texas Despite Overall Slowdown

Long before the completion agenda became the North Star for community colleges, guiding their every decision, Texas political leaders and educators knew they had a problem.

True, the state’s oil-based economy was providing jobs and filling the state’s coffers with tax revenue. But lurking beneath those oceans of oil was a difficult truth: the state’s economy was falling short of its potential because it was not producing enough college graduates. In the year 2000, fewer than 116,000 Texas students completed a postsecondary degree or certificate — this in a state with a population of 21 million people.

That was the same year that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board established what at the time seemed like an unreachable goal: bringing the state, within 15 years, to national parity in higher education while at the same time closing huge ethnic-based achievement gaps.

“Closing the Gaps: The Texas Higher Education Plan” was a rare consensus document. Nobody disputed that the state’s economy needed more college graduates if it was to truly thrive.

The decade-and-a-halfold effort is bearing fruit. In 2015, state colleges and universities awarded 258,795 bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees and certificates, exceeding the state’s 2000 goal by more than 143,000, according to the panel’s final report, which was issued earlier this summer.

Some of the positive results are embedded in Community College Week’s Top 100 Associate Degree Producers listings. While the overall number of degrees ticked up only slightly nationwide, and many colleges saw associate degree conferrals dip, some Texas institutions experienced increases in excess of 20 percent.

Houston Community College, for example, awarded 5,953 associate degrees in 2014-15, a 27 percent increase over the year before, when it conferred 4,672 associate degrees. The college ranked second amond 2-year institutions and fifth in the nation in the number of associate degree conferrals, according to CCWeek’s analysis.

The Lone Star College System awarded 5,569 associate degrees in 2014-15, 1,160 more than a year earlier, a jump of 26 percent. Its total ranks fourth among two-year schools and eighth nationwide. The Collin County Community College District handed out 2,339 degrees in 2014- 15. That’s 20 percent more than the year before and places the college 34th among two-year colleges and 52nd in the nation.

The numbers stand out at a time when many community colleges are struggling with declining enrollments and stagnant graduation rates. Some colleges experienced significant declines in degree conferrals, including the University of Phoenix, the online behemoth. The forprofit giant awarded 14,825 associate degrees in 2014-15, by far the most of any single college in the country. But that figure is 24 percent less than the year before.

While the Texas conferrals fall short of the historic highs recorded in 2012, they nonetheless represent something of a culmination of the Closing the Gaps effort.

Stephen Head, who became chancellor of the Lone Star College System three years ago, said the progress there reflects a system-wide, concerted effort to improving student success rates. The college enrolls more than 70,000 students across six campuses near Houston.

“We’re very proud of it,” he said. “We are about student success. It’s a conscious effort. We are very deliberate in trying to ensure the success of our students.”

Head credits several initiatives with boosting the number of graduates. A reverse transfer initiative, started in 2014, identified nearly 2,000 students who had earned enough credits for an associate degree but had not yet claimed it. Working with four-year universities, Lone Star has created coherent pathways for students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college and need help finding their way to graduation.

Lone Star has 12,000 high school students enrolled in early college high schools. It requires all new students to take a student success course. It’s placed special emphasis on supporting Hispanic students, who make up 38 percent of enrollment. The system has drastically increased the number of advisors as it strives for a better balance between advisors and faculty. The system has about 900 full-time faculty and about 200 advisors.

“We are really trying to help students who need assistance,” he said. “Our biggest concern is that students take the right sequence of courses.”

Similar initiatives are under way at Collin College, which serves about 50,000 students and is located near Dallas, said college President Neil Matkin. He became the college’s third district president last year.

“We’ve streamlined pathways for our students,” he said. “We’ve improved student placement and interventions. Students have a clear roadmap.”

The college has also become a more welcoming place. A 26-page application form has been reduced to just four pages.

“We’re very mindful about it,” he added. “We want to be more like Amazon. We want to wow people.”

Head also has devised a performancebased funding scheme, rewarding the six college presidents under his purview for their success.

The final report on Closing the Gaps initiative, meanwhile, said Texas has made substantial progress in improving outcomes, but still has work to do. The final progress report found:

Hispanic enrollment has increased every year since 2000, though it fell short of the overall target. Hispanic students earned nearly 30 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded by public colleges in 2015, compared to 18.5 percent in 2000.

White student enrollment also fell short of goals, but their persistence rates are improving.

African-Americans were the only one of the three major groups to meet enrollment goals. Despite a decline in African-American student enrollment during the last three years, the group met the goals due to tremendous enrollment growth in prior years.

The state fell about 5,000 awards short of the 29,000 goal for STEM degrees at public institutions.

Female students earned about 22 percent of STEM awards 2015, compared with 26 percent in fiscal year 2003. Hispanics earned about 700 more degrees or certificates in these technical fields in fiscal year 2015 than in 2014, the largest annual increase of the three major ethnic groups, boosting their statewide share to almost 32 percent from just 19 percent in 2003.

The total number of new teacher certifications from all program routes — traditional, post-baccalaureate and alternative — in 2015 was just under half the target of 44,700 certifications for that year. For the subset of certifications in math and science, the actual number was only about 42 percent of the target.

The report also found that community college enrollment is on the rebound after three years of steady declines.

“Community colleges added nearly 6,000 students in fall 2015, following a net loss of almost 40,000 students the previous three fall semesters. That loss was preceded by three years of substantial increases at public two-year colleges between fall 2008 and fall 2011, totaling almost 148,000 students. These two-year institutions comprised 46.5 percent of statewide enrollment in 2015, down from 46.8 percent in fall 2014, as public fouryear institutions enrolled about 16,000 more students.”

Texas had now adopted a successor to the Closing the Gaps plan. Called 60x30Tx, the plan aims to have 60 percent of Texans between 25 and 34 earn a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2030. Currently, only 38 percent of Texans in that age bracket have completed an education program beyond high school.

For leaders like Matkin, those goals underscore the imperative to have a deliberate, ongoing plan to increase student success and graduation rates. Successful initiatives need to be expanded. Those that are not working need to be discarded.

“It’s not just about getting students through the door,” he said. “It’s about qual- We want our all our students to have a quality experience when they get here. We are not there yet, but we’re working at it.”

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