AUSTIN, Texas – A Texas Border Coalition meeting held while the 86th Legislature was underway produced an absorbing discussion about how public education might be radically reformed.

Mario Reyna, dean of business, public safety, and technology for South Texas College, asked whether the time was right to move junior and senior high school students over to community colleges. 

Reyna made the suggestion because so many juniors and seniors are taking college courses while at high school. Indeed, some are even earning an associate’s degree before receiving their high school graduation.

Mario Reyna

Reyna’s idea won the support of Laredo Community College President Ricardo Solis and Chandra Villanueva, program director for the economic opportunity team at the Center for Public Policy Priorities,

While Villanueva was leading a discussion on public school finance, Reyna asked: “Have you thought about reforming high schools? For example, nowadays thousands of students are able to take college classes while in high school. Why are they still in high school?”

As first reported in the Rio Grande Guardian, STC has waived over $200 million in tuition and fees over the past 20 years in order to build a college-going culture in the Rio Grande Valley.

STC had 1,777 dual credit students graduate in May at three different ceremonies. The college collaborates with 24 school districts and 70 high schools across the Valley. The programs are handled by more than 200 college faculty and over 300 dual credit faculty across Hidalgo and Starr counties. 

Since inception of its dual credit programs in 1999, STC has served over 106,300 dual credit students and has awarded over 9,800 certificate and/or associate degrees.

Villanueva responded to Reyna’s suggestion by pointing out high school did not work out too well for her.

“As a high school dropout I did not miss anything in the 11th and 12th grades. We are seeing a lot of growth in this dual credit, dual enrollment, type of thing. That is something our organization is looking into because we are finding that a lot of kids who take these dual credit courses are then finding that when they enroll in college, the courses they took in high school are not aligned with the major they are taking. So, they are not saving any time or money. In a way, they are paying for those courses twice. I think it is a good idea to give kids that exposure.”

Chandra Villanueva

Villanueva said she also had concerns about college being offered in a high school setting. 

“I know that not everybody has a community college nearby but I think that a big part of the college mindset is being responsible for your own self, of getting yourself off to class, to be interacting with people who come from different life experiences. I know that when I attended community college there were moms finally coming back to school once their kids were in kindergarten, there were people coming back from the military. I really got exposed to a lot of people with a lot of different experiences. I would never have gotten this if I had been taking college classes in a high school setting.”

Reyna said that as far as South Texas College (STC) is concerned, the college has articulation agreements in place with the education institutions it partners with and as a result, the courses students take at STC will transfer to another college or university.

“I do not know what is happening any place else but we do see a huge number of students. So, my question is if these individuals are already extremely successful in college, why are they still in high school?”

Villanueva replied: “That is a really good question. I really wish when I was younger there was an option to start college earlier. Actually, dropping out was the only way I could. I was able to get my GED and start community college a year before my graduating class so I could take a year off and get in-state tuition in an out of state college. It was the only way I was able to graduate on time, by dropping out of high school. There are a lot of kids like me that do better in a college setting than in a high school setting.”

Reyna responded: “In Texas there are over 100,000 students. If you are concerned about finance, why are we spending money here when they should be there?”

Solis, the president of Laredo Community College then entered the conversation.

“It is an ongoing dilemma, this dual credit. This whole dual credit issue has really gone way beyond the original intent. Over 135,000 students in Texas are taking dual credit programs right now. It has grown way too fast. We, the different community colleges, are concerned,” Solis said.

Solis did acknowledge that dual credit has been and continued to be a great benefit to communities such as his. 

“It helps but it is also a disadvantage for the Hispanics and lower income areas because it was originally intended for those students that were advanced, those that had the time and leisure and did not have to work, and so on. Now it is open. Every high school wants it now. Over 95 percent of community colleges are offering dual credit.”

Solis said that along the border, community colleges have to be careful. 

“Why do we even have to have junior and senior year at high school if they are ready for college? The setting is very important. It is important to be in a college setting. The way it is happening now, and I have got to be careful with my words, but it is open to being abused. The classes are now in high school with a high school teacher who has the credentials but it waters down the possibility, so we are very concerned about the rigor.”

Solis said while LCC embraces dual credit and knows it is the future, it has to be said that community colleges are losing out on tuition fees.

“We do not make as much money, in fact we lose, but we know it is of benefit for the entire community. We do not charge tuition. The high school benefits but we don’t as community colleges. That is why there is some potential resistance from the community colleges to open it up as a state mandate.”

Solis added: “Now, all the high schools and the parents want it, regardless of what the student’s scores are. It disadvantages us Hispanics. They have other priorities, they have work, they have families. We as community colleges would love to get some additional funding or get compensated at least partially by the state for these dual credits so we can make it work even better.”

Interviewed later by the Rio Grande Guardian, Solis said LCC used to have 800 students taking dual credit courses. In the last few years, he said, it has shot up to 4,000. “Out of 11,000 students, 4,000 are dual enrollment. That is over 30 percent of our enrollment,” Solis said.