MCALLEN, RGV – Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund A. Paredes said he wanted to get an important point over to the people of the Rio Grande Valley so he happily agreed to an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian.
Paredes has been under the weather for the past three weeks and has thus been unable to finish his State of Higher Education report. He said he has a draft form of the report ready and thus set up a conference call with education reporters across the state in order to get across the major points.
The Rio Grande Guardian was unable to join the conference call but Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board public relations officer Kelly Carper Polden set up a one-on-one telephone interview with Paredes.
“When Kelly said you wanted an interview, I said yes, I want people in the Rio Grande Valley to know that we are at a critical point,” Paredes said.
“We are at a point now where we can make a very significant leap forward or we are not going to take advantage of the momentum we have and that we will fall back into gradual progress but not anything that we need, particularly in places like the Rio Grande Valley.”
Paredes, a native of El Paso, said the Texas Education Coordinating Board’s legislative agenda is focused on the poor students of Texas.
“Our No. 1 concern is the well-being of poor students in the K-16 system. We need to do a better job (by them). We are asking for over $100 million more for the Texas Grant Program, we are expanding the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate program which delivers bachelor’s degrees for less than half the cost of a conventional bachelor’s degree,” Paredes said.
“We have created a Texas Emergency Aid Network which puts aside institutional money for students when they have some kind of financial emergency. The brakes go out on their car and consequently they can’t drive their car to campus until the brakes are fixed. Stuff like that.”
Paredes said that in his conference call with reporters he primarily talked about the various initiatives that are being launched around the state, not just by the Coordinating Board but by public institutions generally, “to meet the growing presence of students from socially and economically disadvantaged communities in higher education.”
Paredes pointed out that poor students now represent a majority of students in public and higher education.
“It varies from institution to institution but the state average is over 50 percent. Down in your neck of the woods (the Rio Grande Valley) it is much higher than that.”
Asked what metric THECB uses to measure the socio-economic status of students, Paredes said: “Our metric is very simple, those are the students that qualify for Pell Grants.”
The Texas Grant program is the State of Texas’ supplement to the federal Pell Grant program.
“The Pell Grant program now has a maximum award of about $6,000 so the Texas Grant program is intended to make up the gap between the award amount for the Pell and what students actually need to afford school,” Paredes explained.
“So, let’s say the cost of attendance is $10,000 in terms of tuition fees and books. They get $6,000 from Pell and we would provide the other $4,000-plus change so they can afford to go to school.”
Paredes said Texas is seeing more and more socio-economically deprived students entering higher education.
“We are seeing a larger number all the time, particularly in relation to Latino students. I think this is an important story for the Rio Grande Valley. College-going rates for Latino students, completion rates, is starting to go up dramatically. They are entering higher education in larger numbers and they are completing college in larger numbers,” Paredes said.
“As the numbers go up, I want to make sure we have enough money to provide the kind of academic support that they need. Poor kids typically need more tutoring, they typically need more college advising, they typically need more support because their parents did not go to college so they do not know how to navigate their way towards a degree. So, we have to find mechanisms to provide those kinds of services.”
Paredes said the well-being of poor students is not a new issue for THECB.
“We have had this as our top issue for some time. The difference is the level of magnitude. Now that the population of what I guess we call them, socio-economically disadvantaged students is growing, we just have to be certain that we are expanding services and other support at the same rate.”
Asked what other points he wanted to make, Paredes said:
“The most important points, that I say over and over again with regard to the higher education plan is, we are getting better but we are not getting better fast enough. No. 2, we are not going to reach our goals doing business as usual. We have to innovate in higher education, we have to come up with new initiatives like the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate to deliver education differently at a lower cost but with higher quality. And we have to make sure we understand the students that we now have as well as understood the students from previous generations.”
The Rio Grande Guardian also asked Paredes about his view on Dual Credit, a popular program in the Rio Grande Valley that allows high school students to take some college courses at no cost to the student. The program is so popular in the Valley that a number of students are leaving high school with an associate’s degree.
“My feeling is the same. The data suggests that dual credit is working well but I am worried about the pace of expansion and I am worried whether we can maintain adequate levels of rigor and that we will have high quality courses and prepare the students for upper division courses at university,” Paredes said.
“I just want to make sure we do not get ahead of ourselves. Dual credit is expanding faster than the pool of college ready high school students is. I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves (and find) we are enrolling a lot more students in dual credit courses that are actually college-ready.”