Almost two decades ago, the proverbial writing was on the wall for Texas higher-education officials. Student demographics in public K-12 were dramatically changing, with the share of minorities and low-income students rising quickly.
Traditionally, these populations have been underserved in the state’s higher-education system. “We were aware that the future of Texas was going to be dismal if we didn’t do a better job of including our entire population in higher education,” says David Gardner, deputy commissioner for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
In 2000, Texas launched the Closing the Gaps by 2015 initiative to address these higher education achievement gaps. The ambitious 15-year plan focuses on improvements in four key areas: participation, success, excellence and research. The state created specific targets in these areas and annually measures its performance in meeting them.
“We made a point to have four targeted goals that were measurable so everyone could focus on them. The things that we targeted were those that made the most difference. At each board meeting throughout the year we talked about a specific goal, strategies and adjustments,” Gardner says. Each July, the board has assessed the entire plan, tweaking it when necessary. In 2010, the board released an accelerated plan to focus on areas where the state was lagging behind.
As Closing the Gaps approaches its end date, officials are taking stock of successes and areas where improvements still need to be made.
Successes so far
In his November 2014 State of Higher Education presentation, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes stated, “Of the four broad goals of Closing the Gaps, I believe the two most important relate to participation and student success.”
In terms of overall higher education participation, Paredes expressed confidence that by year’s end, enrollment will increase by 630,000 students, meeting the participation goal. Texas has already exceeded its goal of awarding 210,000 bachelor’s and associate degrees and workforce certificates by 2015: More than 240,000 were awarded in 2013.
Additionally, completion rates have increased by 118 percent for African American students and by 180.5 percent for Hispanic students. In 2013, the number of Hispanic students who completed some level of higher education increased more than threefold since Closing the Gaps was introduced, according to the board’s 2014 progress report.
In support of Closing the Gaps, the Texas legislature has addressed higher-education affordability by creating the TEXAS (Towards Excellence, Access and Success) Grant program. Since 1999, more than $3 billion in TEXAS grants have been awarded to low-income students, Gardner says.
But there’s more work to be done. “We still simply don’t have enough minorities continuing,” Gardner says. “You have to make sure you keep getting better, and we aren’t yet where we should be.”
Gardner points out that student debt must be addressed. “We have to make sure that college doesn’t become a barrier; poor students shouldn’t be forced into careers because of debt burdens and what they can afford.”
To that end, community colleges must remain “high quality and low cost,” Gardner says. Some Texas community colleges have embraced an outcomes-based funding model that rewards the retention of at-risk students.
Going forward, community colleges will need to form stronger ties to the public school system to improve student success. “Getting more high school students into a rigorous curriculum helps with developmental education later on,” Gardner says. “Even though some were still there, they didn’t require as much time. That was critical.”
The state also aims to have 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds earn some kind of college degree so that they can succeed in the workforce. This might have sounded like a pie-in-the-sky goal a decade or two ago, but not anymore. “Part of what’s happened over time is the culture has changed,” says Gardner. “There’s a greater recognition for all people to get an education.”
What is your community college doing to help close achievement gaps? Tell us in the Comments.