Opening the Doors
As College Access Tightens, Students and Families Look for New Ways to Get In
A lot of hopeful but nervous faces were passing through academic adviser René Sanchez's office at Lyndon B. Johnson High School this month -- a lot of college dreams about to confront the daunting regimen of paperwork that lies between them and next fall's freshmen ranks. December promises the relief of the holiday break, but also marks the due date for scholarship applications at several Texas universities. And December delivers the most crucial but dreaded form of all: the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
For some LBJ seniors -- particularly those who graduate from the school's prestigious science academy -- college is pretty much a given, whether or not they qualify for government Pell Grants and other aid. But then there are others: Leaney and Dequita, who go straight from school days to evening jobs to help support their families, and whose grades don't land them in the elite crop of graduates; or Sineria, who can write like da bomb, but whose Honduran mother speaks no English and already works double shifts just to keep her daughter in high school.
For these teens, whose older siblings have already fallen short of higher education, a college degree seems just close enough to brighten their eyes, yet just far enough out of reach to dash their spirits. Adviser Sanchez, whose job it is to walk seniors through the college admissions and financial aid process, says money is out there for students who need it, but the prescribed route -- through eight pages of fine type and itemized financial data on the FAFSA, and an entire culture of family experience that may be lacking -- can be discouraging. Students' "main fear is that they take home things that we send with them for the application process, and they can't get any help because their parents don't understand what's going on," says Sanchez. Judging from the low numbers of teens across the state who manage to push through into higher education, particularly those from low-income and minority households, Texas is going to have to make the path to college a lot smoother, and soon -- or risk confining an ever larger segment of its population to low wages and bleak futures.
The so-called miracle in Texas education got pretty thoroughly probed and sifted during Gov. George W. Bush's run for the presidency, yet still no one's sure whether our kids are more proficient at the three Rs, or if standardized tests have dumbed down our expectations. The Bush camp has touted students' rising scores on the TAAS and national tests as certain indicators of progress, while researchers question whether test results tell the whole story, citing Texas' abysmal high school graduation rate.
Doesn't Measure Up?
But to those higher education officials who inherit the progeny of the Texas public education system, the data is far less ambiguous: When it comes to moving students beyond high school into the college ranks, the state is clearly an underachiever. In late November, a new national study -- "Measuring Up 2000," performed by a nonpartisan research group called the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education -- showed that Texas ranks far behind other states in the percentage of graduates who enroll in and complete college. That isn't news to university leaders, who each biennium testify before state legislators and roll out the charts illustrating what is known as the "pipeline problem": the declining number of Texas high school graduates who aim for higher education. Nor are the reasons for low college participation a mystery, but addressing those factors is complicated and sure to be expensive.
Some experts say universities are not doing enough to recruit and assist students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. "When I talk to honors students and they tell me they're not going to college because their parents can't afford it, clearly we have an outreach issue," says state House Public Education Committee member Scott Hochberg. "There's more that higher education could do to make the promise of college one that persons at all income levels believe they have." Other observers add, however, that students' ability to succeed in college is hindered by their lack of participation in high school advanced placement courses that would better prepare them for college-level work. "Very few students are completing what most people think of as a rigorous college preparatory curriculum," says professor Uri Treisman, the director of the Dana Center at the University of Texas who also served on the Public Policy and Higher Education board. Among minorities, the number who complete college prep curriculums is virtually zero, Treisman says. "I think we have a photo of them here at the Dana Center," he adds, only half in jest.
The graphs that university researchers use to illustrate the lack of college-eligible graduates who complete high school each year are visually arresting. Researchers place a dot high up on the left margin of a transparency to indicate the number of 18-year-olds of a particular ethnicity who live in the state. Then they draw a line that plunges like the Continental Divide down to the next dot, which shows the number of those 18-year-olds who graduate high school. The line continues its freefall as it passes the number of graduates who also took college entrance exams, and keeps sliding through the number who scored well enough to expect admission to selective universities. Finally, it glides to a stop, way down near the right corner of the page, on the number of students who finish in the top 10% of their class.
The number of white students who fall out of the count is disturbing enough, but blacks and Hispanics virtually disappear. For the class of 1998 -- the one that entered high school the year George Bush became governor -- fewer than two-thirds of the state's 95,000 Hispanics graduated high school. But only about 6,000 scored well enough on the SAT test to get into selective colleges, and fewer than 2,700 earned automatic admission into a state university by placing in the top 10% of their graduating class. For African-American students, the picture is even bleaker. Fewer than one in 10 black graduates met minimal college expectation on the SAT, and only 958 black students in the entire state reached the top 10% of their classes. If the state's 35 universities had divided those top-10 graduates equally, each would have added just 27 black students to its freshman class.
The state's universities are under legislative mandate to recruit student bodies that reflect the general population of Texas, but higher education officials question how selective schools are supposed to accomplish that goal, given the shallow pool of minority students who are prepared for college, and the additional obstacle of the 1996 Hopwood decision, which prohibits state universities from admitting students based solely on the criteria of race. And in the minds of education policymakers, there's more at stake than just the discomfort of university presidents presiding over mostly white institutions.
Combined with a decrease in college-bound Anglo students in Texas, the absence of minorities in higher education threatens to drag the state's college participation rate even further behind the national average. That's bad business news for a state working to buttress its economy with technology companies -- and down the line, it portends even more spending on prisons, welfare, and Medicaid. In October, the state Higher Education Coordinating Board reported that if university enrollments in the state don't increase, the state's "college participation rate" -- the percentage of the population enrolled in higher education in a given year -- will slide from 5% down to about 4%. In response to those findings, the Coordinating Board has drafted a plan to improve college access in Texas. The plan estimates that between now and 2015, the state needs to boost its college enrollment by more than 300,000 students to attain a participation rate comparable to states like California and New York: about 6%. To accomplish that increase, however, higher education honchos will have to figure out how to sell their schools to those minority populations who have historically been left outside the university gates.
Recent demographic studies by the Texas State Data Center at Texas A&M confirm that discouraging history. The fastest-growing urban center in Texas is not Austin-San Marcos, but the South Texas border town of Laredo, with McAllen-Edinburg not far behind. Those cities are in counties where three out of four residents are Hispanic. Hispanics already constitute about 40% of the younger Texas population (ages 15 to 34), and their numbers are expected to grow three times as fast as the Anglo population through the next decade, so that whites will no longer constitute a majority of the state's overall population. But currently in counties with predominantly Hispanic populations, only about one in 10 residents holds a college degree, and enrollment figures for Texas' public universities show that campuses are on average about 60% white, with Hispanic and black participation in elite schools such as UT-Austin as low as 14% and 4%, respectively.
There will always be conservative mouthpieces in Texas who will blame Hispanics' lack of college achievement on a culture that (in the words of UT law professor Lino Graglia) "rewards failure." Yet high school counselors know that if you ask any group of ninth-graders whether they're going to college, all hands -- black, brown, and white -- go up in the air. "Most of them expect that they're going to go to college," says LBJ freshman counselor Bob Hayes. "How many are willing to put in the time and the effort ... is a different challenge, but the kids think they can go." Yet somehow over the next four years, most of those hands go down. Even in a relatively wealthy city like Austin, where businesses are hiring every college-educated worker they can find, four-year dropout rates at some Eastside high schools are as high as 20%, and in the end only about one in four kids even attempts to go to college.
Sineria Ordoñez, an LBJ senior who has watched five of her older brothers give up on college, says first-generation Hispanic children aren't given many positive signals in school that higher education is for them. "Instead of taking it as a challenge, [my brothers said] 'Oh, well, I'm just going to quit here,'" says Ordoñez. "People make up this persona of you which is not even true. We can be just as smart as them, if only they'd give us a chance."
Caught in the Pipeline
Like Ordoñez, students from working-class families typically need financial assistance to attend college, but according to counselors, money or the lack thereof isn't typically the determinative factor in whether they go or not. Students who set their sights on college usually find a way, they say. "It's what's in here," Hayes says, holding his fingers to his chest. Yet the difficulty of the college admissions process is underscored by the Austin school district's decision to hire Sanchez as LBJ's college academic adviser, one of only a handful of such positions to be created in the state of Texas. Typically, high schools don't have a counselor whose express purpose is to help kids with college admissions and financial aid. Instead, counselors juggle that duty along with a myriad of other responsibilities. But AISD hired Sanchez this year after the district was forced to reduce the number of LBJ seniors who get counted as top 10% graduates and qualify for automatic admission to Texas public universities. Sanchez says that from his position he can help accommodate students who may lack the motivation, confidence, and family guidance needed to push them forward in their college application. Other counselors "don't have time for that during school hours," says Sanchez, "whereas I can just kind of walk up to a student and say, 'What are you doing? Let's go to my office and you work on this now.'"
Poor students in other schools, however, don't benefit from that kind of personal assistance. At Johnston High School, for example, another largely minority Eastside school, only four career counselors are on hand to serve 1,700 students. Counselor Aubrey Johnson says some would-be college applicants there give up when confronted with the array of application and financial aid forms, which look like further evidence that the deck is stacked against them. Seeing few friends or family members who've been successful at college, says Johnson, and having no one to advocate for them at school, "they decide they just don't want to play the game."
But tedious paperwork is just the end hurdle on a course that students from working-class families don't even realize they're running behind on until it's too late. Unless someone directs their focus to college at the beginning of high school, they avoid taking the advanced classes that will get them there. Even parents who encourage their children to do well at school often don't know what advice to give them, says Ordoñez, who credits counselors at LBJ for steering her into the science academy. "My mom would get frustrated ... when I needed help with my homework. She felt really bad because she couldn't help. ... Because my mother doesn't know the system here, and didn't get an education, she can only say, 'Yeah, go to school, sweetie, don't be like me.'"
That's a pitfall Vanessa Garcia narrowly avoided, thanks to some help from the Hispanic Mother-Daughter program run through the Junior League of Austin. Garcia, whose parents immigrated from Mexico, had never even heard of an AP course when she enrolled as a freshman at Bowie High. But individual counseling persuaded her to tackle more intense coursework in her senior year, and she's now headed for St. Edward's University in the fall, if the money comes through. She's the second in her family to attempt college -- her older sister dropped out of UT because she couldn't afford it, and Garcia hopes she's better prepared. But she says some of her friends are still very confused. "My friend asked me for help [applying to college], because she didn't know what to do, and she said her counselor doesn't really help her out," says Garcia.
Back at LBJ, senior Dequita Parks has been so busy trying to help her disabled mom make ends meet that she says she's hardly thought about what courses she needs for college. "She has just been working, trying to get out of high school," says Dequita's mother, Ima. "She said she was going to check on all that [college] after she gets through high school."
State legislators have grappled with the barriers that deny kids access to higher education for years, but the recent appearance of the Coordinating Board's report signals that the "pipeline problem" may finally be moving onto the front burner for the new legislative session. In 1999, the Legislature approved (though has yet to fully fund) a state grant program that pays college tuition for high school graduates who complete college preparatory coursework and qualify for financial aid. The board estimates that the program as currently designed could reach about 45,000 needy students in the next three years -- but the Legislature will have to decide whether it's willing to pay the $210 million annual bill. The senior senator from Houston, Rodney Ellis, will likely be asking that the Lege spend even more than that.
But the disconnection between teens and higher learning is too deep and complex to solve with scholarships alone. The problem has only been exacerbated by the acrimony that has historically existed between the public school system and universities. "The system has splintered, with the Texas Education Agency doing their thing, and the Coordinating Board doing theirs. It's not a concise system of education," says UT System spokesperson Monty Jones. University officials have complained about the preparedness of high school graduates, but public educators have rejoined that it's the universities that train the teachers. Some argue, furthermore, that universities fail to recruit and nurture those middling students who show initiative but perhaps not high scores, letting thousands of potential degree-holders fall by the wayside. "I've been saying to them," says Rep. Hochberg, "'if you recruited top students in the same manner you recruited top football players, you wouldn't have any trouble finding people.'"
According to the Measuring Up 2000 report, Hochberg has a point. Texas rates about average when measuring the quality and accessibility of college preparatory classes in high schools. Where the state flunks out is in bridging the gap from secondary education to college, and in retaining students once they enroll in higher education. That evidence impugns not only universities but also lawmakers, who set tuition rates at state universities and write the budgets that determine the quality of instruction and level of support services available to students. On the other hand, higher educators' complaints about the low skills of high school graduates are not groundless, either. According to a 1998 report sponsored by the Fordham Foundation, Texas universities spent four times as much on remedial education in 1998 -- about $170 million -- as they had a decade earlier.
Recent comments from higher educators indicate that the era of finger-pointing may finally be fading, as both systems tackle a problem for which both of them share the blame. Gloria White, the interim head of the Coordinating Board's division of Participation and Success, says she's seen a "sea change" in the attitudes of Texas Education Agency commissioners and Board representatives when it comes to consolidated initiatives. "They and all of their staff know that unless there's a K-16 partnership, we're not going to be able to improve higher education or public education in Texas," says White.
Board Commissioner Don Brown says that legislators who are typically at odds philosophically over education reforms seem to be coming to some agreements over smoothing the K-16 road. "Even opponents of affirmative action ... agree that we've got to do a better job of educating everybody," says Brown. Among the proposals likely to attract support: requiring high schools to automatically enroll freshmen in the college preparatory track, allowing students to opt out if they so choose; and promoting telecommunicated classes that will allow the state's scarce supply of math and science teachers to offer AP courses on more campuses.
After this session, Treisman predicts, it will be much more difficult for teenagers to stumble through high school without getting exposed to at least some upper-level coursework. Unfortunately, admits Brown, no serious proposals have been put forward to boost the presence of academic counselors on high school campuses, an elementary remedy that almost everyone agrees would address a fundamental weakness in the system. School counselor Aubrey Johnson says that every year, intelligent students at Johnston High miss the college boat because no one makes them think seriously about it until after they've already let their grades slip and blown off college entrance exams. He thinks that's partially the fault of the school, which doesn't offer the kinds of real-world learning that helps kids from working-class backgrounds understand the importance of education. But it would help, he says, if college recruiters would focus their attentions beyond those students who rank in the top 10% of their classes. Recruitment needs to change, Johnson suggests, to engage not only middling students but their families as well, he says, else education will remain a far-off, abstract concept to many students from poor families.
There will also undoubtedly be attempts to enhance the delivery of college financial aid. Treisman recommends that the state follow Illinois' lead, and match federal Pell Grant awards up to 25% for students who complete the advanced high school curricula. Hochberg says he's taken note of a recent book by a Harvard government professor suggesting that state dollars for higher education could be stretched further by focusing them more on students in need rather than on across-the-board subsidies for public universities. The book, The Price of Admission, by Thomas Kane, also recommends basing the price of individual students' college educations not on their family's ability to pay, but on their own earnings after graduation. That would create a more "transparent" system that would instill confidence in potential college applicants and their families that they could shoulder the requisite expense of education, Kane says. "Higher education today is in many ways like health coverage was in the Eighties: The costs have been rising and there are access issues people are worried about, but the public understanding of where the dollars [for education] are going and how much is out there [for them] is just very low."
Dallas Senator Royce West, who serves on the Senate committees of both Finance and Higher Education, says the idea of deregulating tuition in Texas and focusing more money on scholarships has been batted around before, but he and others are waiting to see what happens in other states before grabbing hold of that lightning rod. West says he'll be paying particular attention to the continuing K-16 initiative, which he says should produce a "seamless" system of education that better aligns public school curricula with college-level requirements. West also promises to push for establishing new universities in locations where they will serve the state's neglected urban centers. "In order to effectively address the issue of the future work force, we must begin to build institutions of higher education in areas that have high concentrations of underrepresented ethnic groups," says West. "It doesn't make sense to continue to build facilities in areas where this population is not located."
Higher education officials whose universities have become leaders in minority recruitment say colleges should ease up on their preoccupation with test scores and GPAs and look harder for untapped potential. Diana Natalicio, president of UT-El Paso, says that 20 years ago her campus was an island of white faces in a sea of Hispanic families, but the college has spun its racial profile 180 degrees by changing its expectations for Hispanic students. "I think we have not been as welcoming as we should be in higher education," says Natalicio, "and the perception among young people is that college is for the rich, or for somebody else, but not for me."
To reach out to the local Hispanic population, Natalicio says, UTEP intensified its teacher training program, which supplies the majority of teachers in surrounding schools, emphasizing the philosophy that every child can and should learn advanced concepts. The university pressed high schools to raise standards and got parents involved in the process, Natalicio says. The result, she says, has been a heightened expectation in the community that college is not only for the richest or smartest. Talent is abundant in poor and minority households, she says, "but what we haven't been very effective in doing in our society is giving that talent every opportunity to flourish, wherever it may be."
Source: Student Affairs Research, UT-Austin
Source: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board