This month, young adults across Texas are starting their first semester of college. It’s an exciting time, but most people don’t realize just how low college completion rates are for students in Texas – especially for economically disadvantaged students. Statewide, about 52% of Texas 8th graders will go on to enroll in a two or four year college degree program, however only 19% of our students ever actually complete a certificate or degree. This drops to an abysmal 9% for economically disadvantaged students. As a community, we put a great deal of effort into encouraging kids to graduate from high school and enroll in higher education; however, starting a college program is only the first hurdle. Colleges and universities in Texas need to take responsibility to ensure that those who set out to earn a degree have every opportunity to succeed in getting it.
Why are so many dropping out along the way? Of course the expense of education can be an issue, the lack of a structured nurturing environment is also a factor, but many are simply unprepared for success. Low-income students often start with a critical academic disadvantage that is exacerbated by a poor remediation system. High schools in impoverished areas struggle to graduate students that are truly college-ready. As a result, kids from these schools are frequently identified for remediation during placement tests before their first semester of college even starts. Yet once these students are put into remediation, they often either lose motivation and confidence or become frustrated and ultimately drop out.
Recent studies have found that a large number of students placed into remediation after performing poorly on placement tests could actually succeed in regular college courses. For the students who really do need to catch up, the typical remediation process doesn’t seem to help much in the long run as remedial students graduate at about half the rate of their college-ready peers. Indeed remediation systems intended to support students may actually be acting as another barrier to graduation. We need to find a better solution.
Some demonstrated practices for remediation reform include using a more comprehensive evaluation for remediation placement, giving students the opportunity to start in college-level courses instead of remedial courses by default, and providing remedial support parallel to or integrated with college-level courses. The University of Texas at Austin has had success with retaining high-achieving, low-income students through its TIP program, which enrolls students in smaller course sections with a variety of support strategies that bolster their confidence.
Some of our best public universities do a good job of graduating students, but most fall significantly short. Indeed it is the very schools that most of our low income, first generation college students choose to attend that have the lowest graduation and persistence rates. Texas colleges and universities have some of the lowest graduation rates in the country, even lower than states with identical socio-economic demographics in the entering college class. Texas needs to be a model of how to facilitate the success of low-income and first generation college students rather than the poorest performer.
Low-income Texans have an uphill battle to a college degree. As it stands, only one in ten low-income children will enter college and make it to graduation day. Communities and higher education institutions must work together to ensure that all Texans have the opportunity for post-secondary success.