Rising tuition costs have changed the landscape of postsecondary education in the greater Houston area as increasing numbers of students seek more affordable options, including community college and dual-credit programs focused on majors marketable to the region’s dominant industries.
From 2011 to 2015, tuition and fees increased at a rapid rate at several four-year universities frequently attended by graduates of Spring and Klein ISDs, including a 22 percent increase per semester at the University of Houston and a 42 percent increase at Sam Houston State University.
“Students are looking for a variety of options to ultimately lower their overall cost of college,” KISD Student Services Officer Beth Gilleland said.
However, the cost of a 12-credit semester at Lone Star College System has risen only 7 percent, from $704 to $752.
LSCS, the two-year community college system serving the northern Greater Houston area, is the first stop for many high school graduates and attracts nearly a quarter of SISD and KISD students after graduation, according to a study conducted by the college system in 2015.
The school districts themselves are also offering more higher education opportunities as well. SISD and KISD have added to their dual-credit offerings after Texas House Bill 505 passed in 2015, which removed limits on the number of dual-credit college courses that a Texas high school student can take, was passed in 2015. SISD plans to offer associate degrees in technical fields at all of its high schools starting in 2017.
Two-year college growth
Amos McDonald, vice president of government and public relations at LSCS, said enrollment has increased from about 45,000 in 2005 to over 82,000 in 2014.
Although part of that growth can be attributed to an overall population boom—Harris County has added more than a million residents since the 2000 census, McDonald said the economy is also a factor.
“Debt is a reason why a lot of students start with us, but you have a ton of students who are transferring from us to four-year colleges,” McDonald said.
Two years at an LSC campus would cost about $3,000 in tuition, while four years at a public university in Texas would average about $33,000, McDonald said
Enrollment at community colleges tends to be countercyclical—it rises as the economy worsens and falls as the economy improves, said Matthew Fuller, assistant professor of educational leadership and counseling at SHSU.
He said this is a boon for community colleges because they are less expensive and lead to credentials more quickly than four-year colleges.
In 2000, when national unemployment was less than 8 percent, fall enrollment at community colleges was approximately 3 million nationally, according to the American Association for Community Colleges. In 2010, when unemployment grew to more than 10 percent, community college enrollment rose to about 7 million nationally.
“Many students found themselves without a job, [and] they decided to go back to school to diversify their possibilities,” Matthew Fuller said. “The old narrative of going straight into college full-time right after high school—living on the college campus—has changed just a little.”
Overall, enrollment growth at two-year and four-year institutions between 2005 and 2014 has remained steady, with two-year colleges growing 26.5 percent during that time and four-year universities growing by 24.6 percent.
Jeff Fuller, director of student recruitment at the University of Houston, said the cost of tuition did not seem to be a deterrent to enrollment at the university.
“It’s not something we’re concerned about,” Jeff Fuller said. “Our applications are up, both incoming and transfer, and we’ve been in that pattern for a number of years.”
Students transferring from community college represent about half of new student enrollment at UH, he said.
Jennifer Cobb, SISD assistant superintendent for research, accountability and testing, said the district emphasizes the importance of continuing higher education in whichever form works best for the individual student.
“Most kids are taking the option to go to the two-year institution to get their feet wet and get the basics behind them,” Cobb said. “The conversation we’re trying to emphasize, whether it is with two- or four-year institutions, is that they need to continue their education.”
A National Student Clearinghouse Report study of postsecondary school habits from 2007-14 states about 70 percent of KISD graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college after graduation each year. In SISD, that number reached 60 percent in 2011 but dropped to less than 55 percent in 2015.
However, dual-credit programs offer an opportunity for students to earn college credit before graduating from high school. Dual-credit programs prepare students for higher education while potentially cutting future costs.
More than 2,000 students participated in the program in the 2016-17 school year, Gilleland said.
“This past March our dual-credit information evening was a standing room only event with over 500 students and parents in attendance,” Gilleland said.
Another option for students aiming to cut college costs and move into the job market immediately is SISD’s Career Pathways Plan. The new initiative, which will offer students the opportunity to earn an associate degree in applied science at the same time as a high school diploma, will begin in 2017, according to a presentation by SISD Chief Academic Officer Lupita Hinojosa.
Dekaney, Spring and Westfield high schools will offer degrees in automotive technology, firefighter science and logistics management, respectively. Wunsche Career Academy will provide 15 associate degree programs, including oil and gas production.
Health care, the oil and gas industry and information technology—all Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields—are key areas for post college employment in the Greater Houston area, McDonald said.
According to an AACC report, the number of students graduating from community colleges with degrees in science and engineering has increased nationwide by 120 percent from 2000 to 2012.
LSC-University Park broke ground in May on a new Center for Science and Innovation. The three-story, 50,000-square-foot building will feature 12 science labs, an astronomy observation deck and other facilities, according to a college press release. The planned opening date for the $15.4 million project is fall 2017.
LSC-University Park President Shah Ardalan said the campus added three full-time math and five science faculty members in 2015, but it continues to need adjunct faculty each semester to meet demand. Hybrid course offerings, combining online learning with face-to-face laboratory experience, have expanded at the campus, he said.
“We understand that STEM is important for the prosperity of our community and country,” Ardalan said. “Our STEM course offerings have kept up with the LSC-UP growth rate of approximately 20 percent per year.”
Skilled trades in STEM fields are also experiencing growth. LSCS breaks ground in July on a new Construction and Skilled Trades Technology Center at the North Harris campus to serve students seeking an associate degree in applied science.
Four-year colleges have also seen growth in STEM programs, although engineering has taken a slight hit due to concerns about the oil and gas industry, Jeff Fuller said.
“It may not be the opportune time right now [in oil and gas], but in two years it’s going to be fantastic again,” McDonald said.
Technical schools provide another option for students seeking a marketable, specialized skill, said Darrin Brust, president of Universal Technical Institute’s Houston campus.
Automotive technician programs at UTI range from 10- 22 months and cost $28,000 to $32,500. The mean wage for an automotive technician in Texas was $41,440 in 2015, he said.
“They can walk right into a middle-class salary and make a good living,” Brust said.