Creating Opportunity for College Access

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"The miracle of South Texas." That's what they call what the dual-enrollment, dual-credit program at South Texas College has done to transform the culture of the Rio Grande Valley from a sleepy school-to-work ethos to one of college-going and college completion.

I had a vision for this transformation back in 1993, when I was a high school principal at Memorial High School in McAllen, Texas. It was then that I first learned about South Texas College—a neighboring community college that had just been established to serve the community in deep South Texas, a few miles north of the Mexican border. I recognized that this was a big opportunity for students and their families. Until then, the almost 600,000 area residents were missing a vital ladder to higher education and a better way of life.

Growing up in Laredo, Texas, in a family with four boys and one girl surrounded by other poor families and kids, I learned that the only way out was by getting an education. I thank my dad, who, in spite of never having finished school in Mexico, always encouraged me and my siblings to take advantage of every available educational opportunity. My father had not been so lucky. As the eldest child in his family, and like many others in his situation, he had to work to help support his mother.

I was fortunate that Laredo Junior College was available to me when I finished high school in 1963. The junior college experience was my ticket to getting scholarship offers and grants, allowing me to complete my education. After finishing a year and a half of coursework, I transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where I received a bachelor's degree in music.

My dad and mom could only bless me when I left home, since they had no money to provide for me. I worked my way through all those college years, and I met a lot of people who encouraged me.

One of the best moments came 10 years into my career as a music teacher. Someone suggested that I become a school district administrator so that my ideas and influence could reach students beyond those in the band room.

—Robbie Lawrence for Education Week

After finishing my master's in school administration and serving as a high school and middle school assistant principal in Austin for several years, I was recruited to run a middle school in McAllen. From there, I was promoted to principal and served in that post for seven years. I learned a lot from the people I worked for, but mostly, I learned from the students.

That particular experience as an administrator was instrumental in helping me grow the dual-enrollment, dual-credit program at South Texas College.

As a principal, I saw a lot of our students yawning their way through their last years of high school. The dropout rate among our mostly Hispanic population ran high. I understood that connecting students with a tangible pathway to college (not just talking about the idea of it) would be a great motivator for them. It would encourage them to remain in school and stay engaged in a meaningful way. The familiar refrain from many bright and capable students upon graduation was "I can't go to college, sir. I got to work and help support the family." The dual-enrollment, dual-credit program at South Texas College erased this very real excuse.

"I understood that connecting students with a tangible pathway to college ... would be a great motivator for them.”

In 1999, after retiring from public school administration, I took over the dual-enrollment program at STC. At the time, we had 450 students in this program and only five of the 40 area high schools participated. Students paid $100 for each dual-credit course. I persuaded our board of trustees (with the help of a supportive board member) to waive tuition and fees for all enrolled STC students.

Since then, the program has grown exponentially—from a total of 465 enrolled students in 2000 to more than 13,000 students this past fall. Most have graduated from our program at no cost to themselves or their parents. We accomplished this with the help of 68 high school partnerships in 23 school districts. We have recruited more than 348 high school teachers, but we can't meet the demand. We are still in need of more than 125 STC faculty members to cover our many classes.

Since 2003, we have served a total of more than 70,000 students. We have saved them and their families more than $100 million in tuition and fees. The availability of a variety of college-completion pathways, including two dozen early-college high schools and six different academic and workforce academies, made it possible for STC to graduate more than 530 students this May with two-year associate degrees before they completed high school.

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In 2003, the Texas legislature passed House Bill 415, which I helped write and champion. The bill removed dual-enrollment barriers, allowing schools to offer career and technical education courses with the promise of a certificate at the end. Last month, we graduated close to 1,000 students with one-year CTE certificates. As a result, students will have an easier time securing better jobs while they continue to pursue higher education degrees.

To me, our success is not a miracle. It is what happens when policy creates opportunity. When key, forward-thinking people like a college president, the leaders and staff of a community college, and neighboring school districts throw their support behind a good idea, amazing things can happen.

Vol. 33, Issue 35, Pages 30-31

Published in Print: June 11, 2014, as 'When Policy Creates Opportunity'
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