Helping Low-Income Students Get a College Degree in Texas

By Thomas Lindsay Ph.D.

It has long seemed to us a matter of self-directed pride that many four-year colleges can’t sit down with community colleges and work out seamless transfers for students.

Today the country loses billions of dollars in inefficient credit-transfer systems, and those who suffer the most are poor students who can least afford higher college costs. On average, community-college students waste one year of schooling by taking courses that won’t transfer to a four-year school.

This does not have to be. If we can get a man to the moon, surely community colleges and four-year schools can work out a process of seamless transfer. The only thing needed for this is the will to do so.

We proposed to Dr. Raymund Paredes, Commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a pilot program that codifies a simultaneous dual-enrollment partnership between a community college and a four-year school partner. The Commissioner “heartily endorsed” the pilot concept.

Next we approached the chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, Rep. Dan Branch. The pilot concept fit perfectly with his proposed House Bill 30 that advocates “transfer compacts.” Then we contacted Sen. Zel Seliger, chairman of the Senate Committee on Higher Education. He approved the pilot, having earlier expressed his support of “early college high school.” The pilot concept also dovetailed smoothly with Governor Rick Perry’s championing of a “$10,000 degree” model.

We had in mind for the pilot the Dallas County Community College District and the University of Texas, Dallas. Dr. Wright Lassiter, Chancellor of the DCCCD, stated that his system was keen on “degree pathways that would provide students with a very specific set of courses to take prior to transferring to UTD with minimal ‘waste,’” adding that “in our opinion, [the pilot] is a true dual-enrollment option that would represent a huge step-up and set the tone for the state.” He concluded, “This is not just out-of-the-box thinking, but it is designing a new box altogether.”

Rep. Dan Branch is eager now to introduce a House bill codifying the simultaneous dual-enrollment pilot.

Jorge Klor de Alva, co-author of the American Enterprise Institute’s study, “Cheap for Whom?” observes: “If the country is to retain its competitive edge, it must reverse the current policies that result in providing the lowest levels of taxpayer support to the institutions that enroll the highest percentage of low-income, nontraditional and minority students—the fastest growing segments of the population.” More than half of postsecondary students in the nation are nontraditional—age 25 and older and working fulltime. In Texas for grades K-12, more than 50 percent are Hispanic.

One obvious concern, of course, is to assure that the curriculum of the community-college courses matches the academic standards of the four-year institution. Faculty members at the partner schools working together can resolve issues of academic rigor.

While we don’t believe a college degree is the only pathway to workplace success, genuinely motivated students should be given a chance for a degree. One of us who taught at a Texas community college for 12 semesters can attest that there are many very bright, motivated students in these schools who are kept from attending a four-year college almost exclusively through lack of funds. By reducing the overall cost for a bachelor’s degree, this pilot would help to open another pathway to an affordable degree.

Our proposal recommends that the Commissioner of THECB evaluate the pilot, setting standards and ensuring that the evaluation is conducted by persons not directly involved in the program’s administration.

There is an immeasurable beneficence to this dual-enrollment symbiosis: The “Texas Model” could be emulated throughout the country, and it would be of great benefit to countless motivated kids who could not otherwise afford to get a four-year college degree.

In Texas there are 50 community-college systems, and 36 public universities. Thousands of students could be helped by dual-enrollment partnerships.

Thomas Lindsay Ph.D. is the Director, Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation
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