HARLINGEN, RGV – The Rio Grande Valley is a place of promise, says Educate Texas in the inaugural edition of its annual report. 

The report, titled “Where Giving Empowers,” has been prepared as a snapshot of the non-profit’s work. The Valley is featured for the way it increased the percentage of students applying for free federal student aid. 

The statewide average for FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student AID) as of Sept. 2017 was 62 percent. The average in the RGV as of September 2017 was 74 percent, an increase of 18 percent compared to the year before. 

“Here is Texas, thanks to Governor Greg Abbott’s 60x30TX plan, the state’s goal is for at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 to earn a college degree or workforce certificate by 2030,” said John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas.

John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas.

“That means a college degree or postsecondary certification is not mandatory for students to have a middle-class lifestyle and fo our state to thrive economically.”

Fitzpatrick said simply attending college will not guarantee future success for students. So, he said, preparing for college and a career must begin early and be a focus throughout elementary middle and high school.

“Students must also navigate the critical transition from high school to higher education or technical training, which many are failing to do today,” Fitzpatrick writes, in his reflections at the start of the new annual report. 

To support Abbott and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 60x30TX plan, Educate Texas created the 20x20x20 Student Success Plan.

“Our goal is to positively impact 20 percent of the nearly seven million public school and higher education students and the 350,000 public education teachers in Texas by 2020,” said George Tang, Educate Texas’ managing director. “Reaching this goal will create a tipping point that will accelerate change for all of the state’s students and teachers.”

The theme of the report’s feature on the Valley is titled “Collective Impact.” Here is the feature:

A Place of Promise

College has not always been as accessible as it is today for students in the Rio Grande Valley.

The students are part of a mostly Hispanic population in the state’s four southernmost counties that is 86 percent economically disadvantaged.

What is changing this story for the better is RGV FOCUS, an initiative of Educate Texas that supports college readiness, access and completion in the region by aligning systems and processes between four public institutions of higher education and 37 school districts. 

The initiative also works to identify and remove barriers students face when applying for, entering, attending and completing college, with the goal of increasing educational attainment in the region.

As part of this alignment, RGV FOCUS and its partners activated the Culture of Attending College Action Network in 2013 to develop a regional strategy that would help college access professionals provide early college awareness information, pre-college advising on admissions and financial aid professionals, counselors and community organizers. 

Because a completed FAFSA is a strong indicator of likely college attendance, the Network activated a strategy to encourage more high school seniors to complete a financial aid application, either the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the Texas Application for State Financial Aid (TASFA) for DREAMers and other undocumented students. 

They did this in three significant ways:

First, partners developed a single process for state aid applicants to submit financial aid applications at local institutions of higher education and built a counselor toolkit for this process, which resulted in an 18 percent increase in FAFSA completions in the Rio Grande Valley.

Second, partners facilitated a federal policy change to include 19-year-olds in the formula for calculating FAFSA completions. Previously, the Department of Education only included students in the FAFSA completion calculations if they were 18 years old or younger. Some students in the region were not being counted as having completed the FAFSA simply due to turning 19 years old before the beginning of their first year in college. With this new age consideration, virtually all eligible seniors in the Rio Grande Valley are completing FAFSA applications.

Third, in a collective response to the new federal financial aid application calendar and ‘Prior-Prior Year” tax return policy, Educate Texas and RGV FOCUS convened the leaders from the four state colleges in the region to discuss aligning their financial aid calendars. As a result, financial aid packages began being distributed in November, directly following the new FAFSA application window.

With these roadblocks out of the way, the focus turned to supporting students in completing FAFSA applications. One approach adopted by the Network is called “Super Saturday.” At these events, held on the same day at each of the four institutions of higher education, the respective financial aid, admissions and enrollment professionals provide assistance to students in filing out the FAFSA to complete their college applications.

The financial aid application process has posed a significant hurdle to postsecondary access, but by implementing the above strategies and providing monthly FAFSA completion progress reports to school districts, the region has reported increased FAFSA completions.