RIO GRANDE CITY, RGV – South Texas College has a higher percentage of students graduating from early college high schools with an Associate degree than any other college in the nation, according to surveys.

This summer, 44 percent of the graduates from the 30 early college high schools in Hidalgo and Starr counties that partner with STC earned an Associate degree. The national average is 30 percent.

The key to this success in the Rio Grande Valley is dual enrollment, through which Associate degrees are earned at the same time students are graduating from high school, said STC President Shirley A. Reed, in an in-depth discussion of dual enrollment in South Texas at an economic development forum hosted by Starr County Industrial Foundation. Reed pointed out that STC has the largest number of dual enrollment students and largest number of early college high schools of any community college in the country.

“Last year, 44 percent of the graduates from the early college high schools earned an Associate degree. That is quite an accomplishment. And, adding to that, South Texas College has the largest dual enrollment and largest number of early college high schools of any place in the country. Nationally, the average is about 30 percent of the high school graduates will have an Associate degree. So, here we are leading the nation with 44 percent of our graduates having an Associate degree. Quite an achievement,” Reed said.

Reed said that at STC’s most graduation ceremonies, held at the State Farm Arena in Hidalgo, over 5,000 students graduated. Of these, she said, 1,600 were graduating from South Texas College two weeks before they graduated from high school. “It is still difficult for me to comprehend the magnitude of that and the positive impact that will have on the future of all of South Texas,” Reed said.

The economic development forum was held at STC’s Starr County Campus in Rio Grande City. Reed was joined in the discussion about dual enrollment by Rio Grande City CISD Superintendent Joel Trigo and Roma ISD Superintendent Carlos Guzman. The panel discussion was titled “The Duality of Progress in Higher Education.”

Reed began her remarks by pointing out that STC’s mission is to create a college going culture in Hidalgo and Starr counties. Creating such a culture in those two counties was simply not possible before the advent of STC, Reed said. “We knew it was not possible, it was not affordable. But we have made the distinct commitment that going to college is possible, it is going to be affordable and it is expected for all in South Texas,” Reed said.

Creating such a college going culture in Hidalgo and Starr counties revolves around dual enrollment and strong relationships with local school districts, Reed said. She promised to take the strong relationship STC has with Rio Grande City CISD and Roma ISD to a whole new level. “The audience we want to reach are the families, the parents, those who may not realize that opportunities are available for all children in Starr County,” Reed said. “But, it is not about shaking hands. It is about coming back two months from today and saying this is what we have accomplished.”

The strategy for creating a college going culture is dual enrollment, Reed said. “It is a simple strategy. It is an opportunity for students while in high school to get college credit, a real college course, taught with the academic rigor of a college course, with students being assessed as though they were on a college campus. And it is made free of charge to all students and all families. I have always said there is no wiser investment that we can make to develop the human capital of Starr County than to pursue dual enrollment.”

No less than 80,000 students at 74 different school sites across Hidalgo and Starr counties have participated in the dual enrollment program, Reed said. “We also have what are called early college high schools. This is a high school operated by the school district with South Texas College as the Higher Ed partner and the goal is for ninth graders to begin this early college high school with the expectation that they will graduate from South Texas College at least two weeks before they earn their high school diploma. It is happening all across Hidalgo County and it is now beginning in Rio Grande City.”

Reed said STC has waived tuition fees for all students participating in the dual enrollment program. Because of this, she said, it is “very challenging” financially for STC, just as it is for participating school districts. Since dual enrollment began, Reed said, STC has waived about $110 million in tuition fees. “If you were off to A&M or UT Austin, multiply that number at least four times. That shows the level of commitment that we do have,” Reed said.

Reed also spoke about Middle College Academies. In such academies in Hidalgo County, high school juniors spend their morning in high school and their afternoons at STC. “By the time they graduate from high school they have earned an Associate degree. We have programs specifically designed for students interested in the medical sciences, another if you are interested in computer science, one for future engineers, one for criminal justice, and we just started a new one for students that want to go into the workforce skills area,” Reed said.

STC has partnerships with 24 school districts across Hidalgo and Starr counties. These partnerships have led to the creation of 30 early college high schools. “We are here today to commit to working very closely with both (Rio Grande City and Roma) school districts to expand these opportunities. It is not easy. It is difficult for any of us to afford it. But, I can’t think of anything more important or any greater contribution South Texas College could make to this county than to see those programs double and triple in size. It is certainly doable.”

Reed said dual enrollment and early college high schools do have their detractors. “Is this for real, they say. Can a high school student really start college as early as the ninth or the tenth grade? Some people say they are not mature enough, they don’t really know what they want to do; that the faculty are going to lower the expectations. I am here to very clearly say none of that is the case. These students are very capable of doing college-level work. They have been tested. They have been assessed as college-ready.”

To prove the naysayers wrong, Reed said, UT-Pan American studied the academic prowess of students that had qualified for college through dual enrollment at STC and those who had gone to college through a traditional pathway. “There are some people who will say, it is just not possible, this could not have been real college-level courses. How could these high school students have possibly done this?” Reed said.

Reed said STC leaders had a “pretty interesting conversation” with Robert Nelsen when he was president of UTPA. “We said, why don’t we just check the data to see if there is any truth to some of this criticism. And they did. They studied the transcripts of the students who came to UTPA from South Texas College and who participated in dual enrollment. When it was all said and done they found that students who had gone through dual enrollment actually outperformed students who began at the university without any dual enrollment. Their retention was higher, their grade point was higher; they had higher graduation rates. So, that kind of put some of it to bed about the naysayers.”

Both Guzman, superintendent of Roma ISD, and Trigo, superintendent of RGC ISD, said they appreciated the partnership STC has forged with their respective school districts. Both said teamwork was the answer to improving educational attainment in Starr County.

“That primary focus is the success of all of our students. Having STC here in our community has been a great benefit to many students in our school district and we want to continue to make that partnership stronger,” Trigo said. “We are really taking advantage of dual enrollment.”

Trigo said dual enrollment is happening at RGC CISD’s three high schools, La Grulla, Rio Grande City High School and Rio Grande City Early College High School. He said the early college high school began last year and has about 250 students. “They all have a common goal. They want to earn an associate degree. Very powerful,” Trigo said, pointing out that many of the students come from families who have never had a family member attend a college or university before. He added that RGC CISD is helping create a college going culture in Starr County. “We are dreaming big with our school district. We are aiming for 100 percent of students earn Associate degree.”

Despite RGC CISD fostering a college going culture, Trigo acknowledged that many students want to go directly into the workforce. This is why programs like welding, lobotomy, cosmetology and website design are important, he said. “We live in area where many parents, grandparents, guardians have never attended university,” Trigo said.

Roma Superintendent Guzman said his son took advantage of dual enrollment, graduating with an Associate degree two weeks before graduating from high school. “Those programs are invaluable. Our kids have to take advantage of them,” Guzman said. Asked how to better communicate with parents about the benefits of dual enrollment, Guzman said one way would be to use social media more, as well as traditional media and to leverage support through partnerships in the community. “It is a team effort,” Guzman said.

Wanda Garza, STC’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment services, won a big cheer from the audience when she said the number of students in Starr County who have taken advantage of dual enrollment has risen from 648 in 2013-14 to 823 students in 2014-15. The goal is to expand the program again in 2015-16, she said. Garza said she was “most proud of the fact” that, by introducing dual enrollment in Starr County, STC has saved parents $1.2 million in tuition fees. This brought more cheers from the audience.

Editor’s Note: Pictured in the main image accompanying this story are Roma ISD Superintendent Carlos Guzman, South Texas College President Shirley A. Reed and Rio Grande City CISD Superintendent Joel Trigo.