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Shirley A. Reed has been a driving force in increasing higher education access in the low-income Rio Grande Valley in Texas since she founded South Texas College, a public two-year institution, in McAllen, Texas in 1994. In two decades, the school has grown from 1,000 students to 30,000. More than two thirds are the first in their families to go to college and 95 percent are Hispanic. In the last 10 years, more than 81,710 high school students in the have taken courses at South Texas for free.

Shirley Reed South Texas College
Shirley Reed

Reed’s efforts earned her a 2013 McGraw Prize, which recognizes individuals making gains in improving education. She estimates that the dual enrollment programs in particular has saved prospective college students in the area $85 million in tuition. She spoke to The Hechinger Report about the details of the program.

Question: How many of these 81,710 school students ultimately obtained a college degree?

Answer: I have the statistics in a little different way. We have them broken down into different groups of students. This last May we had 4,400 graduates and 900 of them (who were in the dual enrollment program and academies aimed at high school juniors and seniors) earned an associate’s degree or 1-year certificate two weeks before they graduated from high school. We [also] have 15 early college high schools (a national dual enrollment program where all students in a high school can earn up to two years’ worth of college credit before they graduate). We’ve had five of those early college high schools have their graduating class. Of these five high schools — and they’re intentionally kept very small numbers — we graduated 338 high school students; 212 of them had associate’s degrees at the same time they earned their high school diploma.

Q: Do they need remedial classes when they arrive at college?

A: When the college began 20 years ago, before we started dual enrollment we had a very high percentage of our students needing developmental (remedial courses) — it was in the range of 70 percent. It’s been going down, going down, going down to now we’re at the point that only 17 percent of student are in development. My personal belief is this is the result of dual enrollment program, which is creating a college-going culture that simply never existed before. And these students are capable of completing a college class. They’re convincing their friends to participate. Families are encouraging them. It’s just really building a momentum of, “I can go to college, I can do it.”

In order to take dual enrollment classes, you must be college-ready. You have to be tested, or you have to meet the state-standards for college-readiness. And the fact that they have already earned their two-year college degree certainly says they’re college ready when they transfer to a university for their baccalaureate degree. We have a university called the University of Texas Pan-American that is 10 minutes away from the college, and their faculty was asking, “Are these students really ready for the university? Are they getting an appropriate academic experience at the community college?” So the president of the university and I said, “Let’s look at the data and see what it says.” The university did a research study of our dual enrollment students and how they perform when they go to the university. [They compared] our dual enrollment students with students who began at the university with no dual enrollment. The retention rates are 18 percent higher the first year. The GPA is 0.75 higher than the university students. Their four-year graduation rate is 24 percent higher and their six year graduation rate is 30 percent. That kind of tells a story.

Q: What college courses are these high schoolers taking and receiving credit for? Are they going into any of the science, technology, math and engineering areas?

A: They’re specializing in some of our career and technical programs. For example, welding — completing a one-year certificate in welding where they can go to work and maybe earn $70,000-$100,000. They’re getting one-year certificates in various fields of information technology. They’re marketable skills that those students can use to get a job out of high school, work part-time while they’re going to college begin their career ladder in the IT field – just a wide, wide variety.

Then we also have academies. This is a program for 11-12th graders where fulltime they’re going to high school and they’re completing their associate’s degree and they’re doing it in STEM [Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics].  We have one in engineering, one in medical science, one in information technology. These are students that are taking first two years in college. They’re getting their degree in biology or engineering and then they’re transferring to the university and just doing really well.

Q: Talk a little bit about your 9th grade initiative with McAllen Independent School District. How do you work with at-risk students there and how popular the program is?

A: The ninth grade, four to five years ago, was really the hemorrhage point for dropouts. That’s where they were dropping out. McAllen was the first to say we need help with this. So we partnered and what we have is a program whereby over-age, at-risk ninth graders come to our technical campus. They continue to work on their academic courses, but they also start some technical courses that they find very engaging. It’s kind of a hook that makes them want to succeed. For example, design and drafting is a big hit with these ninth graders. They love the thought of how eventually they might be learning how to do gaming. They’re learning how the design and graphics work in gaming — actually learning it and practicing it. And it’s just unbelievable how success and relevancy just breeds more success and more relevancy. You can just see the light bulbs go off in the eyes of these students.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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