Editor’s note: This story is part of a package examining how community colleges in Texas are innovating to address pressures facing two-year schools nationwide. We started this reporting before the pandemic, and as the crisis unfolded, we thought it was important to show how schools are set up to respond to a potential rise in interest and a heightened need to retrain workers.
MCALLEN, TEXAS — On a quiet afternoon in early March, a dozen or so high school juniors strolled into a science classroom at South Texas College. They put on white lab coats and then got to work.
Earlier in the school year, they had scooped samples of dirt from their backyards and other areas to find special viruses that eat bacteria cells. Now they huddled around laptops to analyze clusters of DNA they had extracted from the pathogens. The goal was to find an unknown virus — a discovery that could pave the way for an alternative to antibiotics.
Before the students started that day's work, Leonardo Castañeda, the college's director of academies and high school projects, had asked if any of them knew which colleges they wanted to apply to.
The group had whittled down their preferences. Many were weighing in-state universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin, as well as highly selective, faraway schools like Stanford University, in California.
"The sky is the limit," Castañeda told them in the hallway before class began, noting that they'd likely have a leg up because of their research work. "I'm going to ask you all to go for it."
The students are enrolled in South Texas College's selective Medical Science Academy, a dual-enrollment program for high-achieving local high school students.
It's one way the institution is hoping to build a college-going culture in the Rio Grande Valley, a mix of rural and metropolitan areas across the southernmost tip of Texas that is home to many lower-income communities. Each year, South Texas College welcomes hundreds of high school students from the area to its palm-tree dotted campuses to participate in its dual-enrollment programs, which include the medical science and other academies.
High school students can take courses through South Texas to get ahead on their college credits, but the college picks the roughly 300 participants in its dual-enrollment academies carefully. These limited-entry programs let students earn their associate degrees and high school diplomas simultaneously, enabling them to enter the related field immediately or go on to earn a four-year degree.
The Medical Science Academy was the college's first, launched in 2005. Since then, the college has created six more academies, including teaching and pharmacy programs that debuted last year.
"The program has grown as we see where is the need and how we can help these students," said Rebecca De Leon, South Texas' dean for dual credit programs and school district partnerships.
The dual-enrollment academies and other programs are also one of the reasons South Texas had more dual-enrollment students than any other institution in the state in 2019, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That's saying something in a state like Texas, where dual enrollment more than doubled from about 91,000 students in 2009 to more than 202,000 students in 2019.
Funding for these programs varies across the state, leaving some high school students and their families to foot the bill for dual-enrollment credits. At South Texas, however, its partner school districts pay $600 per semester for each student enrolled in the dual-enrollment academies to keep them free, and they provide transportation to the college for most students.
That structure can make college an option for students from low-income families, who benefit more from dual-enrollment programs than do their peers from higher income families, research suggests. Since South Texas' dual-enrollment programs began, more than 100,000 high school students have earned college credit, saving some $200 million in tuition and fees, notes a 2019 report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
"You can save your family huge amounts of money on college and improve your chances of college," said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center (CCRC).
A boon for Texas
By focusing on associate degrees that will prepare students for high-demand jobs regardless of whether they continue on in college, South Texas is helping the region's economy transition from being largely agrarian to one focused on healthcare, advanced manufacturing and professional services.
One of its latest additions is a teaching program that addresses a roughly 16.5% projected increase in the need for preschool, elementary and high school teachers in the Lower Rio Grande area from 2016 to 2026, according to state workforce data.
"It's really all about careers, whether you're going to go right into the workforce or you're going to get a bachelor's and master's degree," said John Fink, senior research associate at CCRC.
South Texas officials credit its dual-enrollment programs, which were launched in the 1990s, with easing poverty levels in the region. In Hidalgo County, where the college's main campus is located, the poverty rate shrank from 41.9% in 1990 to an estimated 30% in 2018 — an improvement, but still far above the nationwide rate of 13.1%, according to census data.
"Here in the Valley, we're a lower-income community," said Mathew Cantu, who graduated from the dual-enrollment academies this year and will attend the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley this fall. "It's really good that we're able to get our associates for free."
Dual enrollment has been a boon for Texas residents. A 2018 study of 135,000 students enrolled at a University of Texas System campus found that students who entered college with dual credit were twice as likely to graduate in four years as those who didn't. They were also more likely to say their exposure to college courses helped them adapt to campus.
Another study, conducted by the American Institutes for Research, found the benefits of dual-enrollment programs to the state — such as students finishing their degrees sooner — outweighed the costs of delivering them.
However, when the number of students in dual-enrollment programs rises quickly — as it has in Texas — concerns often follow that the rapid growth is coming at the expense of quality, said Amy Williams, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.
Certain dual-enrollment programs may lead students to accumulate credits they don't need, or they may disproportionately enroll wealthy and white students. Indeed, there is disparate access to these programs across the nation and within Texas, with Black and Hispanic students participating at lower rates than white and Asian students from 2001 to 2015, according to a one report.
Nearly 95% of South Texas' students are Hispanic or Latino — a group that makes up a growing share of U.S. college enrollment but is still underrepresented at many public colleges, a recent report from The Education Trust points out. Their graduation rates at four-year universities also lag those of white and Asian students, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
But when programs scale intentionally and are designed to reach disadvantaged high school students, Williams said, growth in dual enrollment can help get "more students to envision themselves as college students and be successful once they go there."
At South Texas, dual-enrollment students tend to outperform their classmates. Dual-enrollment students earned an average grade of 85.7% in the fall of 2016, compared to typical South Texas students' average of 72.4%.
Of the college's roughly 7,800 dual-enrollment students set to graduate high school that year, about 62% enrolled in college the next fall, compared to 70% of recent high school graduates nationwide that year. To date, every student who has graduated from the academies has gone on to a four-year institution, Castañeda said.
Students in South Texas' dual-enrollment programs believe the experience gives them a leg up. "There's a lot of students who have never taken a college class," said Nayely Rodriguez, who graduated from the dual-enrollment engineering academy this year and will attend the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley this fall. "I feel like I have that advantage where when I go to college it probably won't be the same, but I'll have a bit more ground to work with."
Ready for the next step
In a meeting room with pale orange walls on the top floor of South Texas' brick-clad library, several dozen high school students gathered early one afternoon at the beginning of March for their weekly seminar. It is part of the dual-enrollment program's effort to acclimate students to the rigors of college life.
Although the topic up for discussion was serious — proper email etiquette in college and the workplace — the atmosphere was casual. Students whispered and laughed with one another as the presenter paced the room wearing blue jeans and Adidas sneakers.
"You don't want to be in a situation where you have a very serious question ... and (your professor) is getting an email that says babygirlkisskiss (or) 2bad4u," she said to students' laughter.
These weekly seminars are meant to help students learn skills, such as time management, that they need to succeed in college and at work. That's important for the dual-enrollment academies, which require students to keep on top of their college courses and high school classes.
That's why students who want to join an academy must convince college officials they're passionate about the related field through a written essay included with their application. They also must turn in three letters of recommendation from their high school teachers and meet minimum requirements for state test scores.
But the experience of balancing high school and college can pay off later, said Heriberto Rodriguez, another dual-enrollment student. "It takes a lot of time from your life," he said, "but it's really good. It's going to pay up toward the end (when) you graduate with an associate degree."
Cantu agreed. "I really believe if you could handle all of this together, you'll be able to handle whatever an actual university will be able to throw your way," he said.