Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr.
Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr.

WACO, Texas – Leaders in Texas public schools, colleges and universities, especially those in South Texas, don’t get it.

The inordinate emphasis on student enrollment, as if that is the only thing that matters, is a prime example. This emphasis assumes that input, as demonstrated by high freshmen enrollment rates, is more important than timely graduation rates.

Consider the proposition that it does not matter how many students enroll, but rather how many complete a college degree in a timely manner and without carrying forward a burdensome debt. This issue has major implications for the participation and success of Texas Mexican American students that now make up the majority of the enrollment in this state’s public schools. We cannot continue to make them fodder for the gristmill/molino.

The increase in enrollment, at South Texas colleges and universities, is what the president of UT Pan American believes reflects an evident “college going culture.” Data from the United States Census Bureau, demonstrates that from 1970 to 2010 that this is not the case, especially for Mexican Americans who make up 90 percent of the population of south Texas. Only 17 percent of Mexican Americans in Texas have an Associate degree or higher. By comparison, the overall Texas adult population with an associate’s degree or higher is 34 percent [double the outcome for Mexican Americans]. What the data does tell us is that South Texas has one of the lowest percentages of citizens with college degrees. If such a culture existed then the numbers and percentages of Mexican Americans with college degrees would be greater.

Three years ago, a Forbes magazine article noted that Mercedes Benz uses over 257 vendors to provide the different components used in its assembly line. These vendors are constantly under review and must meet the highest quality standards; failure to meet these standards means disengagement from the Mercedes Benz production circle. Likewise, post secondary education institutions rely on public schools [the vendors] to prepare college ready graduates for entry, participation, retention and graduation from the assembly line they operate to either graduate competent or frustrated participants.

To fully appreciate what may be happening, one has to evaluate education within a basic production process model known as the Black Box. At its simplest it is demonstrated as such: Input-Blacbox-Output.

The “Input”, includes the students who enroll and participate in the post-secondary educational processes referred to as “encounters” in a college or university during the span of their enrollment. The “Output” is completion/graduation and entry to the economy as an individual ready to assume gainful employment. Among these encounters are registration, advisement, classroom instruction, internships, scholarships, the fees and tuition paid by the student, financial aid or debt that is incurred, student support services and the social life of the institution. Of concern here is how these encounters either accelerate or impede a successful student outcome.

Mercedes Benz maintains high quality standards throughout its assembly lines process and produces an outstanding outcome, a highly valued vehicle. Education, on the other hand does not have consistent measures of accountability or continuous quality controls that may result in punitive measures, censure or dismissal of the leadership of low performing school districts. Neither is the leadership of public higher education institutions censured, put on probation or even dismissed for dismal outcomes. When was the last time that a public college or university president or chancellor was dismissed for the low performance of an institution?

I find the academic ranking system, of Texas public schools to be seriously flawed, as there is an absence of corrective actions or continuous improvement plans that are grounded in rigorous research to right the ship. If our post-secondary education institutions were branches of Mercedes Benz; they would be deobligated or cease to exist. Yet post-secondary institutions persist with an ongoing reliance on ill prepared high school graduates that lack substantial math, science and technology skills, demonstrate low English literacy skills [speaking and writing] and many that need improvement of interpersonal skills.

Some wise politician observed that, “to retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.” The same observation can be made about how students are or are not educated and graduated in a timely manner from Texas public community colleges, four-year colleges or universities. The processes and challenges that these students encounter and suffer through are hard to observe and to the outsider, beyond comprehension.

As a former university professor and high school teacher, I found an absence of significant student engagement in the counseling and advisement services so critical to guide students to successful outcomes. It is hard for students to have significant engagement or mentorship with a cadre of faculty that is more absent than present. A goodly number of them arrive on campus just in time to meet their teaching obligations. I would encourage citizens to walk about any Texas public campus facility on any given Friday. They will be hard put to find faculty present in their offices; the clients [students] cannot find their service providers.

This is an introspective observation that reflects my own involvement in such an environment, most recently at UT-Pan American. I will not attest to my own actions, others can and probably will. It is difficult for students to follow an academic map that requires advisement; that is sorely missing in many colleges and universities. This is a process that should require tight quality controls and oversight by each academic department. In many instances it is a hit and miss proposition that results in frustrated students that are ill prepared to pursue a rigorous course of study that should result in timely graduation.

The academic journey begins at the “Input baseline” or the recruitment, acceptance to and enrollment in a two-year community college, technical institute, or a four-year college or university. This starting point is one that needs the most analysis and revision. The policy makers in D.C., Austin and in regional education institutions function and operate under the assumption that a “typical” high school graduate is ready for entry to a college track. Sadly, this is not the case. That was the underlying assumption of the Closing the Gaps in the Texas Higher Education Plan enacted in 2000 by the Texas legislature. To-date this plan has failed to produce outstanding outcomes to meet its targeted goals, especially those that pertain to ethnic populations in this state.

Data from the College Completion Project show that in Texas, in 2010, only 24 percent of college students graduated in four years, 49 percent graduated in six years and the balance of 27 percent is still meandering through a college or university or has simply given up. The data is rather disheartening when one finds that at UT-Pan American only 36 percent of its students graduate within four years and at UT-Brownsville the four-year graduation rate is 19 percent. These are the two institutions that will comprise the backbone of the new UT-Rio Grande Valley that has a stated mission of becoming a Tier I research institution. These data are also a point of reference in a 2012 Texas Tribune report concerning the inordinate non-completion four-graduation rates in Texas colleges and universities. The state’s two flag ship institutions, Texas A&M and UT-Austin, failed to crack the 55 percent rate to graduate their students within four years.

Additional data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, show that the community colleges in South Texas reflect the same negative trend: 1.) The completion of an Associates or Technical Certificate was 29 percent at TSTC-Harlingen, 2.) 13 percent at Del Mar College, 3.) 19 percent at Texas Southmost College and 4.) 11 percent at South Texas College. This data reinforces the contention that these numbers reflect the inadequacies and shortcomings of Texas public schools to prepare our students after fourteen years and millions of dollars in investment of our limited tax dollars. The outputs [high school students] that are directed toward community colleges, technical training institutes and four-year institutions do not meet the expected standards for success.

I find it presumptuous of colleges and universities to propose that they can correct and remediate twelve to fourteen years of abject failure. They cannot nor should it be their mission to do so.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in its 2010 report, The Gap Between Enrolling in College and Being Ready for College, claimed that in, “Every year in the United States, nearly 60 percent of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not ready for postsecondary studies. After enrolling, these students learn that they must take remedial courses in English or mathematics, which do not earn college credits.” It is important to observe that the longer students enroll in remediation, the greater their college debt will be. It is also evident that the time to complete a course of study will be elongated, as will be the time spent without progress toward completion. This is a literal treadmill.

A contention from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education is that, “this gap between college eligibility and college readiness has attracted much attention in the last decade, yet it persists unabated. While access to college remains a major challenge, states have been much more successful in getting students into college than in providing them with the knowledge and skills needed to complete certificates or degrees. Increasingly, it appears that states or postsecondary institutions may be enrolling students under false pretenses. Even those students who have done everything they were told to do to prepare for college find, often after they arrive, that their new institution has deemed them unprepared. Their high school diploma, college-preparatory curriculum, and high school exit examination scores did not ensure college readiness. Lack of readiness for college is a major culprit in low graduation rates, as the majority of students who begin in remedial courses never complete their college degrees. As a result, improving college readiness must be an essential part of national and state efforts to increase college attainment.”

What must we do, especially in South Texas and at Hispanic Serving Institutions, to increase completion rates and bring them below its present average rate of six years? I assert that many answers are within the Texas public school system. I would recommend that, first; the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Education Agency develop a joint action plan to hold school districts accountable for graduating truly college ready students. Secondly, no student should be allowed to graduate unless she/he has the prerequisite skill sets in math, reading, writing as well as in technology to complement an outstanding array of social skills. If they cannot demonstrate these skills, I recommend that they enroll in a required extended one or two-year curriculum that focuses on those skill sets and for which college credit could be given.

Thirdly, I believe that action should be taken to revise the present system of student financial aid. I recall reviewing data, in 2012, from the Educational Testing Services [ETS] and the U.S. Department of Education that showed that many students who were enrolled in remediation courses were using up their allotment of Pell Grants. Upon exiting from the remediation core, these same students assumed a heavy load of loans that impeded both the completion of their academic coursework and their post-graduation careers. If students were being remediated in the proposed 13th or 14th year, beyond high school then they would not be consuming their Pell Grants.

A fourth recommendation concerns the sun-setting of certain institutions that have not proven themselves and failed to provide an “ROI: Return on Investment” to the taxpayers. Are we receiving value for what we are paying for? This quality control action could be put into effect to merge non-performing school districts with others that are meeting certain targeted outcomes. What is evident is that many independent school districts are providing our taxpayers, family, their communities and most of all their students with an inadequate and substandard academic foundation. We must expect and demand more. The same proposal needs to be considered for colleges and universities that are failing to provide an outstanding ROI.

A final recommendation is directed at the creation and expansion of academic programs at post secondary education institutions. I propose that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approve none unless there is sufficient data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics to ascertain that these programs are directed at full employment for graduates. Our colleges and universities must be engines that drive the economy instead of drains on our tax dollars. I propose that we slaughter the sacred cow that higher education has become.

An extension to this recommendation is that the funding for higher education be reconsidered. I propose that the Texas legislature consider “performance based funding” for higher education institutions and that their budgets be normed to tangible outcomes for reimbursement. At present colleges and universities, except for community colleges, are funded for many programs that do not demonstrate success outcomes that tell us that graduates are prepared to enter the economic mainstream. Such funding would weed out those non-performing programs that add nothing of value to the quality of our state’s economy and its regional constituencies.

In this column the focus has been on the inputs, processes and outcomes that demonstrate that both public education and higher education institutions, in Texas and nationally, are doing a mediocre job of educating and preparing young people, especially Mexican Americans, to participate in a competitive world economy. Unfortunately, there is really nothing much that post-secondary educational institutions can do since the “Input” is made up of ill prepared graduates from public school districts.

What can and should be done is to dig deeper downward to expand the capacity of our public schools and reduce allocations to non-performing post-secondary education institutions. This is an issue that too many elected officials and members of board of regents and trustees thread gingerly around at every session of the Texas state legislature.

We need leaders to be more data based in their pronouncements. Otherwise, their data free contentions will lead to the expansion of the rift between inputs and outputs and add to the chaos that is already evident in our schools and universities. It is imperative that we ask the leadership of Texas public college and universities how they are measuring success and to provide outcomes that tell us, the taxpayers, that we are getting an outstanding ROI. The bottom line is college completion and that should be the primary mission of a four-year education, pure and simple; it is the only thing that matters.

Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D., had a 45-year career at all levels of education. He now volunteers as a consultant to several community-based organizations and non-government organizations in Central Texas where he now resides.