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Fostering a college-going culture against the odds

South Texas College's eSTC Campus is a totally self-contained campus where students do everything online
University Business, December 2013
Shirley Reed is the founding president of South Texas College.
Shirley Reed is the founding president of South Texas College.

As the founding president of South Texas College, Shirley Reed has had her share of challenges in an area of high poverty with many families, recently immigrated from Mexico, who might only dream of sending a child to college.

Since 1993, Reed and STC have made tremendous inroads on changing that.“The students I see are all motivated, hungry for a better life. More than 70 percent of our students are the first in their families to attend college, meaning they don’t know exactly how to attend college at first, but they know it’s the path to a better future,” she says.

Reed received the prestigious Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education in September for her contribution to furthering a college-going culture in the Rio Grande Valley.

Let’s start with what South Texas College is doing for the underserved population.

We do a lot of work with the public schools in the area and that has led to a dual-enrollment program of 12,000 students in 15 early-college high schools. The program allows eligible students to take college courses with the opportunity to earn certificates and associate degrees while attending high school. This has helped truly transform the region to a college-going culture which simply did not exist before.

Many community colleges seem to focus largely on nontraditional students, but that isn’t the case with you.

We serve them, but they don’t constitute the largest segment of our enrollment. The biggest student population is really our younger students, the ones taking courses in high school that then transition to finish their degree here before they go to the university.

This region is unique in several ways in terms of the demographics. First, we have a very young population. I think we have the third largest number of 18- to 24-year-olds in the country, so naturally we are going to have a younger student population.

In the older population, half the adults over 25 don’t have a high school diploma, so in many ways a large number of our adults, or nontraditional students, are pretty disenfranchised to have access to higher ed.

We work in preparing students to earn a GED, but with the drop in Pell Grants for students who do not have a high school diploma or a GED, that ability to benefit provision is now gone. Those students have no way to pay for college. You’re 40 years old and you’ve worked in a certain field and never gotten a diploma—how do you pay for college?

About 85 percent of our students are on federal Pell Grants. Our student body is about 96 percent Hispanic. Many of them are the first in their families not only to go to college, but to go to high school.

That must provide some special challenges.

It does provide many challenges for the families. The logic is that if your family didn’t earn a high school diploma, they will find themselves very challenged economically.

It’s a struggle for the kids to stay in school because they really want to help their families financially. And when the kids work, they are helping their family. They aren’t saving money for when they get to go to college. It is day-to-day life for many of these families.

STC has played a big role in boosting your local economy and reducing the unemployment rate, which was around 40 percent when the school opened in 1993. What is it now?

Now it hovers around 10 percent, which is tremendous progress. This was an agricultural-based community, but it has transitioned to manufacturing. There is also a lot of what we call maquiladoras, or twin plants, where production takes place on the Mexican side of the border and then goods are shipped here for packaging and distribution.

We also have a very large health care industry. Now we’re seeing another transition to a tourism and service industry, along with health care and education.

The University of Texas-Pan American and the The University of Texas at Brownsville are merging into a new school with a medical school. That will be a major economic driver for health care and medical-related research and production in our region. It is a very exciting time.

Many colleges and universities across the country reported a drop in enrollment this past year. Has this been a problem at South Texas College?

No, it hasn’t, but we are seeing that the rate of growth is slowing. I think this year we had about 1.5 or 2 percent growth enrollment in the fall—but when you get to 31,000 students, 2 percent growth is pretty good.

How have you been affected by state budget cuts to education?

Fortunately, we’ve been stable in our resources. Texas does a good job in funding community colleges. We have a three-part system where we get state funding based on enrollment and we get our student tuition, but we also have a property tax base, so that provides a pretty solid foundation for our resources. It’s not like some states that are suffering severely, so we can continue our work without worrying as much about resources.

Now don’t get me wrong—it’s tight and it’s hard, but we can function quite well. So, our commitment is to simply maintain quality in what we do. We have not cut back services, we have not cut back personnel, we have not cut back technology.

Our commitment to academic rigor remains absolutely paramount because we know that if our academic rigor of dual enrollment is questioned, that whole program can fall. We absolutely have to demonstrate to the public schools, the higher ed entities—and to our own faculty—that these courses are taught at college-level rigor.

You also operate the eSTC Virtual Campus, which launched in 2011. Tell us about that.

Our eSTC Campus, we believe, is the first that is a totally self-contained campus where students do everything online, from buying their books and using the library to registering and meeting with advisers. It is a completely independent campus with about 6,000 students enrolled taking a wide variety of courses, and we offer 20 degrees and certificates that are completely online.

The interesting part of this is that many times students come to campus to use our computer labs to take their virtual class. And it begs the question: Why? Many of our communities don’t have the fiber and bandwidth going into their homes, or the latest technology.

There are so many barriers to easy access to high speed internet, so they come to campus to go online. In a way that’s very funny to imagine, but I suspect it goes on more than we realize across the country.

Do you see online learning being a big part of education?

We do believe it is going to play a major role in education, but it is going to take time to evolve and develop. Many of our students who have had limited success with higher ed previously are not suited to jump in and take an online class. You have to be disciplined and motivated, and you have to be pretty independent. Students who don’t come from tech-savvy homes need to transition to that.

Sure, everybody seems to have an iPhone, but it’s pretty darn hard to be reviewing and working on a spreadsheet on an iPhone. I think it will definitely be the wave of the future for us, but it will take a little more for our students to transition and be comfortable in that environment.

I read that STC is collaborating with Texas A&M University-Commerce to create a new kind of degree program. What’s that about?

That’s a new adventure for us. We were asked by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to create from scratch a baccalaureate degree that was primarily competency based.

The curriculum has been developed and we hope to begin rolling this out in the spring semester. UT-Commerce will probably have the bulk of the online component at first and we will have more of the traditional classroom delivery approach.

I expect that to evolve as our students are more comfortable and prepared. But for me the real excitement is to have a competency-based approach—especially for older students and nontraditional students who have a world of life experience, military experience, or professional experience—but it’s not packaged in credit hours. Maybe it’s time for higher education to transition from seat time as the measure and actually move to demonstrated competencies.

Will the competency-based degree become commonplace?

I do see it evolving rapidly, but it has to be done well. If students do not, in fact, have the competencies that we are certifying them as having, it will set back competency-based instruction for a long time to come. We need to make sure we are adequately assessing these competencies as the ones needed in the workforce and by employers. That will be critical.

I know that you put yourself through college at age 26, going to school during the day and working at night. How much of yourself do you see in the students who attend STC?

I see myself in almost all the students in one way or another, They are people who don’t necessarily have the full confidence in themselves to say, “I can go to college and I can be successful.”

Many have never had the family reinforcement to follow those dreams. I see them struggle. They are embarking on a journey that is scary and confusing. That’s why I believe starting high school with a very supportive structured environment is the way to build that self-confidence and motivation.