Filling the education gaps

Community, technical colleges help drive local job creation

The biggest university endowments, football stadiums and most sought-after degrees in the state may belong to Texas' largest public and private four-year universities, but community and technical colleges are increasingly forming the bedrock of higher education in the state.

Fall 2013 enrollment numbers show community and technical colleges accounted for 54.5 percent of Texas' public higher education student body, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Steven Johnson, vice president of public affairs with the Texas Association of Community Colleges, said 75 percent of all post-secondary freshmen in the state of Texas are currently enrolled in a community college.

And the state's community and technical colleges are not just providing a lower-cost education or a pathway into four-year universities: They are one of the driving forces behind job creation and economic development in their communities, Johnson said.

"We are the doorway for most students now," Johnson said of community and technical colleges.

Economy driving enrollment

Whether it be the recent recession or the latest Texas oil boom, market forces are driving an increasing number of students to enroll in Texas community and technical colleges, officials said.

Enrollment in community colleges grew by more than 100,000 students between 2008–10. For a three year time period that was the largest increase in enrollment in the past 20 years, according to the THECB.

Student enrollment jumped in that time period because enrollment at community and technical colleges is countercyclical to the economy, Johnson said.

"We saw lots of folks that were either unemployed, underemployed or afraid of being unemployed," Johnson said, regarding the 2008–10 enrollment spike. "They went back to community colleges to get new skills in that recessionary time period."

Community and technical colleges are typically two-year colleges that offer certificates and associate degrees. Community colleges often offer a variety of academic studies and technical programs. Technical colleges are geared toward workforce education programs that require a certificate or degree.

Booming sectors of the economy are also enticing students to enroll in community and technical colleges.

Dorado Kinney, dean of student services at Austin Community College, said the Texas oil boom has driven students to enroll in certain programs at ACC.

"Our truck driver program—big enrollment numbers because of the growth within the oil industry," Kinney said.

At the new Texas State Technical College location at the East Williamson County Higher Education Center in Hutto, Jacob Shaull is finishing welding school. He hopes the education finds him work on pipelines, in the oil fields or "wherever the money is," he said.

But beyond the promise of a paycheck, Shaull said he enjoys the work.

"I love it," Shaull said. "It's just you and that weld."

Hands on learning

Adam Penberg said he likes the trajectory of technical school and the skills he is learning. Penberg left Northwest Vista College in San Antonio when he did not have a clear plan for his studies, he said.

Now Penberg studies industrial systems and engineering at EWCHEC. He said the education could land him in a variety of jobs, from repairing X-ray machines to school maintenance.

"It's cool to have an end goal," Penberg said. "You go through two years, get your associate's degree and pretty soon get a job."

Lane Prazak, one of Penberg's classmates, said a traditional classroom education was the wrong fit for him.

"I was always a hands-on learner. I did not like sitting at a desk all day," Prazak said.

George Fields instructs Penberg and Prazak. He has taught electrical trades since 1976.

"We had this theory that everyone had to go to [a four-year] college," Fields said. "That left out everyone that wanted to work with their hands and minds."

Fields said his students also have a shorter road to graduation, and, once they earn an associate degree or certificate, they can pick up a paycheck comparable to what graduates of some baccalaureate programs earn.

But getting students past the finish line at TSTC and other community and technical colleges throughout the state has proven challenging.

At TSTC in Waco, 26 percent of full-time students are graduating in three years. Those graduation rates are comparable to those of many community and technical colleges throughout the state, THECB data shows.

Adam Hutchison, provost and vice president for student learning at TSTC, said two major factors influence graduation rates.

Many students attending two-year colleges intend to use the school as a "stepping stone" and transfer to a four-year college before graduating, he said.

Also, many students arrive at community and technical colleges with academic and socioeconomic challenges, Hutchison said.

"We all acknowledge that a 33 percent success rate for a two-year college student over four years is not acceptable," Hutchison said. "I don't want to look a student in the eye and say, 'You've got a one-in-three chance of success,' when they show up at my door. ...We have to get better."

New programs could improve the gradtuation-rate trend, Hutchison said.

New efforts include comprehensive advising and more success programs that include tutoring and mentoring, Hutchison said.

Colleges are also trying to speed the pace of developmental study sequences aimed at students who are not college-ready upon arrival. That will help students leave college sooner, Hutchison said.

"We know that is a major barrier. The longer a student is in [college], the more likely they are to not complete," Hutchison said.

Enrollment aids local economy

The presence of a technical school can be a strong indication to a business that skilled labor is available locally, said Joey Grisham, president and CEO of the Hutto Economic Development Corp.

Beyond signaling a skilled workforce in the area, community and technical colleges can also provide customized programs for specific businesses looking to train employees on certain equipment or processes, Grisham said.

"Training is critical: If you've got [a community or technical college] in your backyard you are ahead of the competition," Grisham said.

Johnson said employers often want to locate in an area where jobs can be filled by people living in the area.

"It is difficult for [businesses] to count on an inflow of folks coming from outside the region to fill those jobs," Johnson said. Growing Pains

In fall 2013 more than 730,000 students were enrolled in a community or technical college in Texas, according to THECB data. That number could double by 2050, Johnson said, citing projections made by Steve Murdock, a Rice University professor and former state demographer.

The impending effects of House Bill 5 likely will feed that growth. Lawmakers passed the education bill in 2013, and it should push more career and technical education into the state's high schools though new programs, Johnson said.

The bill could lead to more high schools coupling with community colleges to facilitate technical education. The state is beginning to implement changes outlined in the bill, and it will probably be the current sixth, seventh and eighth grade children that will be most affected by implementation of the bill, Johnson said.

One major challenge facing community colleges is accommodating a larger student body and maintaining the resources to do so, Johnson said.

Community colleges typically have three revenue streams: state funds, student tuition and local taxes.

"Can overall state funding keep up with that growth?" Johnson said. "Clearly you can't double or triple tuition. You can't double or triple taxes. You've got to manage that kind of growth, but I think our institutions are the most flexible to be able to do it."