McALLEN, RGV – A top administrator at South Texas College has called on businesses in the Rio Grande Valley to start singing the praises of duel enrollment, to counteract negative comments about the program from higher education leaders in Austin.

Speaking at a McAllen Economic Development Corporation board meeting, Wanda Garza, vice president of student affairs and enrollment services at STC, said that working with Valley school districts, STC will be graduating 1,995 dual enrollment students from high school with a certificate or an associate’s degree. Garza said this was proof of the program’s success.

Wanda Garza
Wanda Garza

Dual enrollment, or dual credit, involves students being enrolled in two separate, academically related institutions. Generally, it refers to high school students taking college courses.

Interviewed after the MEDC meeting, MEDC President Keith Patridge said he is a big supporter of STC’s dual enrollment program and said criticism of the program was likely coming from those who do not want the Valley’s socio-economically challenged families to get ahead.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund A. Paredes is more skeptical of dual credit courses. He has questioned whether there is enough academic rigor and whether the quality of teachers overseeing associate degree work in Texas high schools is good enough.

“We really don’t present what the industry is saying about the quality of our students,” STC’s Garza told the MEDC board. She pointed out that STC waives tuition fees for those students taking dual credit courses in local high schools. She said this is a great boost for those families who cannot afford the cost of tuition.

“We not only do a financial study to demonstrate our fiduciary responsibility to the legislature. There are also independent studies that demonstrate that (dual eligible) students going on to university are not only performing at a higher level when they enter, they are also graduating at a higher level. So I am hoping, Keith, you can really echo that. We need to hear from industry,” Garza said, in her request for help from Patridge and MEDC.

Garza said 76 students taking dual credit courses at McAllen ISD this year have earned an associate’s degree. “That is amazing. We need to continue to engage ourselves and commit to this discussion with Austin,” Garza said. “We are truly building educational capacity in our region. We are the largest in the state of Texas (when it comes to dual enrollment). We have over 15,000 students (in dual enrollment classes). We are the pioneers. Other parts of the state are trying to figure out how we are so far ahead of them. It is because of the way we work as a region.”

Asked what higher education leaders in Austin would hear if they came to the Valley and listened to the business community about dual enrollment, Garza told the Rio Grande Guardian: “The message the commissioners are going to hear loud and clear is that industry is so well-connected with our educational system and that dual enrollment is building that young capacity of highly educated workers we need. You have over 15,000 dual enrollment students. We have 1,995 eligible dual enrollment seniors that will be participating in our commencement ceremony. These students are going on to pursue higher and higher degrees because they have had such a great head start in the high schools. So, dual enrollment or dual credit is phenomenal. It is the Rio Grande Valley’s jewel in the crown. It is our star. It is a very innovative model, the program has rigor, all the teachers have master’s degrees. We are not only raising the students’ education levels we are also lifting up the credentials of our teachers in the high schools.”

Garza said there are some very poignant moments when she meets parents who have seen their children graduate with an associate’s degree while in high school. “Parents will come up to me with tears in their eyes. They never thought their children would be able to pursue a post-secondary degree. That is when you know you have done it right, that you have made a difference. And that is what we do.”

A form of discrimination

MEDC’s Patridge told the Rio Grande Guardian that he would be happy to “engage” with state leaders in Austin in defense of dual enrollment. He said the Valley has an ally in Andres Alcantar, chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission.

“Dual enrollment was a concept pushed by industry because of the need to have competent graduates as quickly as possible. It started here,” Patridge said. “We kept hearing from UTPA that the kids were not up to performing at the college level. So, independently, they did their own study of the dual enrollment graduates and what they found was they actually performed at a much higher level than those that went through and graduated from the high school through a regular program.”

Asked what he thought of those in Austin criticizing dual enrollment, Patridge said: “I think this is a philosophical attack. It is not proven by fact. He (Commissioner Paredes) is not listening to what the business sector is wanting. I think this will cause some issues between workforce and higher education. Workforce is responding to what the employers are saying they need.”

Keith Patridge
Keith Patridge

Asked what feedback MEDC gets from its members on the quality of dual enrollment students, Patridge said: “The feedback we get is these students are very good quality. We all know there is a skills shortage across the nation. By getting these kids while they are in high school to start getting actual skills, through STC or community colleges or universities, through the dual enrollment program, what you are now doing is making those students valuable in having a certain set of skills, so the companies can go in and start recruiting them while they are still in high school, either through internship programs or part time work and then they have the opportunity to actually provide tuition reimbursement programs and keep them. So, if you have a student and you bring them in through an internship or you bring them in through a part time situation, you have the skills, they then graduate and you have a person with a skills set and the company can come in and say, I will pay for your college if you will stay with me. What that does is it locks them in, so they are not competing with the rest of the world for the skills sets. All our companies, they love the dual enrollment program.”

“It almost discriminatory. In the Valley, the per capita income is fairly low. These kids come in and get college credit up to an associate’s degree, while they are in high school and it is basically free, because most of the time the tuition is waived. What that does is give hope to kids that were realistically telling themselves early in high school that they were never going to be able to go to college because they or their families could never afford it. They were giving up at this point. This really gives them an opportunity to recognize their potential and you can see it in the quality of the graduates that are coming out. The parents see an opportunity they never thought they would have. So, to me, to be against that is almost discriminatory. How could you do that? The only thing you can argue about is the quality and the quality is proven. The employers tell us the quality is good. That the quality of the graduates is good. The studies from higher education tell us the quality is good. I don’t understand the criticism.”

Patridge added: “If the state of Texas wants to see how dual enrollment is working they should come here. One of the three commissioners on the Workforce Commission, Andres Alcantar, recognizes that. He knows what we have done and he has a lot of respect for what we have done. He knows this is a model that has worked.”

Editor’s Note: The main photo accompanying this story shows Keith Patridge, president of McAllen Economic Development Corporation, South Texas College President Shirley A. Reed, South Texas College Vice President Wanda Garza, and Andres Alcantar, chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, at a workforce training event in McAllen in June, 2015. The photo is provided courtesy of Diana Grace Partida and Periodico USA.