MCALLEN, Texas – South Texas College has been one of the key drivers propelling the economy of the Rio Grande Valley, says Keith Patridge of McAllen Economic Development Corporation.

Patridge said STC has helped MEDC bring new businesses to the region by providing the educated workforce those businesses need.

“From our standpoint, community colleges are our key to the success of not just McAllen and our area, but to the whole state of Texas and the whole country,” Patridge said.

“South Texas College has been one of the most important economic developments that has occurred in our community. It’s really been the engine that has driven a lot of growth that we’ve had.”

Patridge made his comments in response to a new report from the Texas Comptroller’s Office about the positive impact community colleges have in Texas. The report, titled Texas’ Community Colleges Statewide Overview, was produced before the recent coronavirus crisis.

“Spending by Texas’ 50 community college districts contributes billions of dollars to the state’s economic output and directly and indirectly supports thousands of jobs. Beyond this impact, however, our community colleges play an essential role in workforce development. They provide some Texas students with a low-cost opportunity to learn in-demand skills while preparing others for further education at a four-year university,” the Comptroller’s report stated.

Patridge said companies are looking to their local community colleges to build their workforce through professional development opportunities. By way of example, Patridge cited the growth of call centers in the greater McAllen area.

Patridge said MEDC partnered with STC 15 years ago to develop training for customer care centers. Not only do students learn skills that are applicable across industries, Patridge said, but their employers also provide flexible working hours and tuition reimbursement to encourage their employees to continue their education.

“Everybody wins,” Patridge concludes about the partnership, which provides direct access to careers paying starting wages of up to $60,000 per year. “This has allowed literally thousands of our kids to not only develop the skills they need, but also to get an education without going into debt.”

Patridge said he is pleased STC is offering bachelor’s degrees in Applied Technology and Applied Science, noting that this is rare for community colleges. He said such courses make the pathway to higher education even more accessible in the Valley.

“They now offer four bachelor’s degrees that are focused on both the technical skill sets to do the job, as well as management,” says Patridge. “It’s working really well.”

STC recently added a fifth baccalaureate degree, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.

The agility of community colleges like STC will continue to provide options for getting ahead of any changes that occur in the workforce and the economy, Patridge believes.

At a university, Patridge said, program development can take as long as three or four years. Meanwhile, in response to industry needs, STC has created programs in less than six weeks — and in some instances, less than a week.

“One of the benefits of community colleges is that they have more flexibility than traditional universities,” Patridge said. “They really have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on in their respective communities.”

Speaking of his agency’s new report, Comptroller Glenn Hegar said: “Community colleges benefit their regions — and the state as a whole — by offering certificate programs and job training tailored to local workforce needs.”

The report points out that community colleges generate more than $820 million dollars in the South Texas region alone, and the rewards are much more than monetary. In Fall 2017, a whopping 46 percent of the state’s higher education students enrolled in community colleges, more than any other type of higher learning institution. That’s about 700,000 community college students who found pathways to college degrees and skills to enter the workforce.

The report also shows that for the 2017-18 school year, community colleges in Texas ranked as the fourth-lowest for tuition and fees in the entire country, averaging just $2,209 a year. It says the average cost of one year at a Texas four-year public school was $8,375.

The savings are substantial, Hegar explained, which is why community college students graduate with about half the debt of a four-year student.

“Community colleges offer great value,” Hegar said. “They can bridge the journey to a four-year degree, provide an entryway into the workforce, or both. Community colleges are an accessible and affordable way for students to experience the benefits of higher education.”

STC was among the first community colleges in the nation to offer dual credit programs, through which students can earn up to an associate degree before they get their high school diploma. And, they can do it tuition-free, saving students a total of more than $200 million over the past 20-plus years.

When it comes to education and career options, community colleges like STC can jump-start student success. According to the Comptroller’s report, in 2018, workers in the South Texas area who took college classes or earned their degrees were paid an average of $4,000 more than those with a high school diploma. This help boost the cumulative wages in the area to nearly $820 million per year.

“That’s good for South Texas, and that’s good for Texas as a whole,” Hegar said.

Hegar also referenced the economic impact of COVID-19.

“During every economic downturn, community colleges have offered a low-cost option for students … to become more marketable and better prepared to take on new jobs once the economy recovers,” says Hegar.

Ccommunity colleges must remain a steadfast source of resources, support, and accessible education during the coronavirus pandemic, he argued.

“I see South Texas College and all of Texas’ community colleges as critical to ensuring that Texas will emerge from this challenge stronger and better prepared for the next cycle of economic growth,” Hegar said.

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