Innovative local programs help students graduate on time and with less debt

By Scott McClanahan, Ed.D.

In the spring of my senior year, I noticed a trend amongst my classmates: they were all discussing college incessantly. I, however, was not. As the son of a factory worker and a retail sales clerk (neither of whom attended college), I was not having those discussions at my house.  I had not met with my guidance counselor for college advice nor had I been approached by any outside entity to help me navigate the college process. My sole source of information was the copious college propaganda that arrived in the mail each day. Impressed by beautiful pictures, stories of campus activities, and lists of amazing opportunities available at the various institutions, I tried to determine where to go, even though I knew my family did not have the financial resources for me to attend. It was not until April of my senior year that I decided on a state school 90 minutes from home; however, by that time, the dorms were full nor had I been awarded financial aid, forcing my parents and me to navigate the worlds of off-campus housing, financial aid, payment plans, and books on our own.

But that was 30 years ago.  And we hope — for the large majority of today’s students — circumstances are different.  However, an occasional student still moves through the high school system and never receives the message that college is both valuable and available, despite any hardships possessed.

As President of the Heart of Texas P-20 Council, I can confidently state that administrators around the region sponsor fantastic College Readiness programs to assist their students: college and career fairs to motivate students to pursue higher education, college testing (such as ACT, SAT, and ASVAB) preparation that opens opportunities at higher education institutions or in the military, and specialized career preparation classes. From rigorous Career and Technical Education programs, to Advanced Placement and Dual Credit course offerings, to Early College High Schools and early degree programs, our region is leading the charge to impact every student. Today’s local students find it increasingly more difficult to make it through to high school graduation without ever hearing about college, without receiving information about paths to college, or without their post-graduation plans being questioned (usually multiple times).

These conversations are part of our region’s efforts to meet the requirements of the State of Texas’s 60x30TX initiative, an enterprise to keep Texans competitive in the global economy. The 60x30TX initiative has four goals: increase the education level of Texas’s 25 to 34-year-old population; increase degree completion levels at Texas community colleges and universities; increase the marketable skills possessed by high school graduates; and decrease the amount of student debt accrued by college graduates. The state’s fifteen-year strategic plan encompasses these four goals, all to be achieved by 2030. Although formidable, all are attainable with intense, directed action on the part of K-12 systems, higher education institutions, and the community.

The first goal seeks to increase the number of adults ages 25-34 statewide who hold college degrees (2-year or 4-year) or national workforce certifications to 60% by 2030.  In an age where the American Center for Progress reports that one in eight Americans lives in poverty, this type of goal is required. A 2012 Brookings Institute study identified two common characteristics of prosperous communities: residents either held a college degree or had earned a workforce certification, and explained this finding economically in a 2015 report:  adults aged 25 to 34 who finish college degrees not only earn more annually but also contribute more to the local economies, causing the whole community to flourish. Similarly, specialized certifications allow workers access to a set of higher-paying jobs. Therefore, the goal makes good sense for all of us.  However, the 2018 Texas Public Higher Education Almanac reports that in 2016 (the most recent available data) only 42.3% of Texans 25-34 held a degree or certification. Therefore, it is in all our best interests to encourage the young people in our lives to pursue one of these avenues.

The Heart of Texas P-20 council, whose focus is to collaborate, inform, and advocate for seamless pipelines from prekindergarten to career, engages local K-12 systems Waco ISD, Midway ISD, LaVega ISD, and Connally ISD, local charter schools Harmony and Rapoport, higher education partners McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College, Prosper Waco, and numerous business representatives in active communication to remove barriers that might exist that prevent students from helping the state to achieve these strategic goals. And, our earnest work toward this mission is seeing results.

At last Tuesday’s McLennan Community College graduation, Rapoport Academy and Waco ISD graduated 13 students with associate degrees before these students had even graduated from their high school.

Waco ISD’s two associate degree graduates with me: Kiara Jackson, Waco High School, and Isabella Lozano, University High School. These young women have both claimed the title of first student in their high schools to graduate with an associate degree.

One Waco High School student, Kiara Jackson, achieved this feat in only three years—graduating from high school a year early and from her associate program three years ahead of schedule. The students completed these degrees at no cost to themselves, helping to meet the state’s fourth strategic goal of reducing student debt levels. These students avoided costs by participating in programs offered at their high schools that are free of charge. Rapoport Academy’s Early College High School and Waco ISD’s ACCELERATE Early Degree Program are just two innovative ways that regional educators are creating options for our students to eventually earn more as workers and contribute to their communities at higher levels as consumers.

Questions about these types of programs can easily be answered by a high school counselor or current participant; however, three main misconceptions tend to keep students from taking advantage of these types of opportunities:

How does a student have time to meet all the high school graduation requirements and complete a college degree at the same time? Do they have a longer year, go to night school, or have to attend during the summer?  – “Dual credit” classes allow students to earn both high school and college credits at the same time. For example, MCC’s History 1302 can be taken to fulfill both the required credit for high school US History and to complete the U.S. History course requirement for any degree issued at a Texas public college or university.  Therefore, with smart planning, students can complete classes that earn credit towards high school graduation and a college degree.

How does a student know what classes will be accepted by universities, particularly out of state? Who will help them navigate that?  – McLennan Community College advisors are extremely knowledgeable about transfer credits and acceptance of classes. Advisors are required to meet each semester with students prior to enrollment, once two classes are completed. During this advising, they will ask students what schools interest them and what their anticipated majors will be. From that, advisors will determine the best classes for the students. Parents and students can always verify transfer policies for any college by calling the transfer coordinator (whose name can be found on the college’s website) to discover how transfer coursework will be accepted once the student is admitted to the university.

Does this type of program keep students from participating in other school activities? – Because students are accelerating their instruction (sometimes by up to four grade levels), they should consider limiting participation in some activities, especially those that cause them to miss school frequently or require long practice hours outside of the school day. Since grades in these courses impact the students’ high school and college GPAs, an overloaded schedule many times will avert focus from academics (or cause students to have tremendous worry about those academics) and performance suffers. This does not mean students must give up all extra-curricular activities. They can participate in activities such as band or choir, sports, and clubs; however, they should make wise choices when investing time and carefully evaluate the time commitment required of each activity before committing to it.

Perhaps if these types of opportunities had been offered when I was a senior, I would have taken advantage of them and saved myself a great deal of time, money, and stress. We have programs to help increase college access throughout our community—Communities in Schools, VOICE, Project Link, just to name a few. Parents who did not attend college should not feel embarrassed about asking for guidance on how to help their children navigate this process. We are all in this together: schools, businesses, the P20 council and the State of Texas. Together, we can meet the state’s challenge and meet its lofty goal, while simultaneously helping to make Waco a more prosperous community.

Dr. Scott McClanahan is the Executive Director of Secondary Curriculum and Instruction for the Waco Independent School District. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, Dr. McClanahan moved to Texas to earn both his Masters degree and Doctorate. He has been a middle school and high school teacher, a community college professor, and a university adjunct professor.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.