While colleges in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) have been experiencing a higher rate of enrollment than the state of Texas itself, very few students are completing their degrees.

Only 18 percent of residents aged 25 and older across the counties of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy, have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

In 2018, in collaboration with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), Texas Southmost College, and South Texas College, we at RGV FOCUS launched an initiative to re-engage college “stop-outs,” defined as students who began college, but did not earn their degree or certificate. 

Dr. Rodney Rodriguez

Whether it is because they lost their financial aid, owed a balance to the college, or had personal reasons, such as working full-time jobs or raising their families, these students stopped out of higher education because they felt like they had no other choice.

Our RGV FOCUS team identified approximately 2,000 Valley college stop-outs and more than 9,000 “dual credit stop-outs” who had earned dual credits while in high school but did not continue their education.

To better help students, our initiative focused on strengthening outreach efforts in three areas:

1. Reverse Transfer – simplifying the process by which students who transferred to a four-year institution before completing an associate degree transfer back to the community college to finish their degree

2. Adult-Re-Engagement – assisting adult students with some college credits and no completion of a degree or credential return to college and complete their education

3. Dual-Credit Stop-Out Re-Engagement – guiding students who had earned significant dual credits in high school in continuing their higher education if they had not yet transitioned to college after graduation

Debbie Gilchrist, former director of student service centers for UTRGV, explains that, whether it is an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, a degree is essential to getting higher paying jobs and greater economic stability.

“For our students considering going back to college, re-enrolling seems overwhelming, but it’s never been more important than it is now,” Gilchrist says.

Since 2018, RGV FOCUS and our higher education partners have helped over 400 college stop-outs continue their education and have helped more than 700 dual-credit stop-outs enroll in college. Reverse transfer has helped double the annual number of degrees earned by students.

RGV FOCUS’ Latest Work

As the RGV grows due to economic development from new businesses moving into the region, so does the need for an educated and able-bodied workforce. By earning their industry-based certifications or degrees, RGV residents can fill new high-paying job openings and secure a financially stable future.

RGV FOCUS is expanding on our stop-out work to engage more college and university leaders in a partnership to ensure that students are prepared to succeed in high-demand careers by helping them finish higher education degrees and credentials.

We have engaged our leaders from higher education institutions to implement initiatives to advance postsecondary educational opportunities for our students. When all colleges and universities in the RGV unite to provide local students with the opportunity to attain higher education, everyone wins.

With more higher education leaders joining our RGV FOCUS partnership, students will have more options when deciding to transfer between colleges.

“Industry does not require nor deems a bachelor’s degree the equivalent of a skilled workforce; their focus is on technical skills,” says Cledia Hernandez, associate vice chancellor at Texas State Technical College. “Although our region is large, I believe that each one of our colleges and universities play a unique and vital role in providing educational opportunities and that, by working together, we can impact more students.”

Most recently, RGV FOCUS received recognition for our work by Children At Risk. At the non-profit organization’s annual Accolades Luncheon on October 8, RGV FOCUS won the award for Outstanding Nonprofit Collaborative or Collaborative Program and Outstanding Child Advocate. We would not be able to do this work without our many partners and supporters, and would like to thank the many education, business, and community leaders in the Rio Grande Valley who help drive change on behalf of our students and teachers.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Dr. Rodney H. Rodriguez, senior director of RGV FOCUS. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the author. Rodriguez can be reached by email via: [email protected].

Editor’s Note: RGV FOCUS is a collective impact initiative that was launched in 2012 by Educate Texas and Communities Foundation of Texas. Its mission is to transform college readiness, access and success in the four counties of the Rio Grande Valley: Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy. The group says it has already achieved measurable improvements in educational outcomes across the region, and it looks forward to a future when all Rio Grande Valley learners achieve a degree or credential that leads to a meaningful career.

Editor’s Note: An image from a UTRGV graduation ceremony in Brownsville. (Courtesy photo by David Pike/UTRGV)

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