Chamber's annual State of Education focuses on college enrollment, STEM opportunities

By Kelli Weldon

Boosting college enrollment and encouraging students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields were key topics discussed at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce's annual State of Education event Nov. 17.

One goal of the GACC is to increase the area direct-to-college enrollment rate—the percentage of students who enroll in college immediately after high school—to 70 percent by 2015, said Gene Austin, Bazaarvoice CEO and 2015 chamber chairman.

"It was only about nine years ago that our direct-to-college rate was less than 60 percent, and we've made tremendous progress together," Austin said.

In October local companies posted nearly 41,000 job openings, said David Reiter, senior vice president at Luminex Corp. and 2014 chamber education chairman. About 44,000 people are unemployed in Central Texas, and about 85 percent of them lack an associate degree, he said. To increase college enrollment opportunities for Austin-area students, the chamber and local school districts have partnered to introduce initiatives such as Counseling 2.0 to help inform students about financial aid deadlines and other elements of the college enrollment process.

Austin ISD interim Superintendent Paul Cruz said the school district needs support and resources to ensure students graduate from high school and are college- and career-ready.

Texas considers AISD a property-wealthy district, but more than 60 percent of AISD students participate in free and reduced-price lunch programs, he said. AISD is required by law to send millions of dollars to the state to be redistributed among property-poor districts as part of recapture, also known as Robin Hood.

"That's money that we [could use] to invest in Austin kids, but we are actually sending it to the state," Cruz said.

Boosting technical literacy

There are 7,400 open computer science jobs in Central Texas, yet fewer than 500 students in Central Texas took computer science classes in the last school year, Reiter said.

Technical literacy should be part of every child's education, said Ray Almgren, vice president of marketing at National Instruments, who gave the keynote address at the State of Education event.

The growth of "the Internet of things"—which he explained as being the interconnectivity among devices—means there will be significant opportunities to increase hands-on education in the areas of STEM, Almgren said.

"We need to continue to invest in trying to encourage more students to pursue the careers of science and engineering," he said. "But I can assure you it means there will be lots of jobs."

Reiter said in January the chamber will launch a pilot program in Austin ISD in which 100 tech employees will talk to 4,000 10th-grade students to encourage them to enroll in computer science courses.

Inspiring students should be part of the equation, Almgren said, noting hands-on experiences both in and out of the classroom can help students.

"Just like band and choir and football create that excitement and motivation, we can do that same thing with an out-of-classroom experience so that they really will focus on math and science in the classroom that they need in order to pursue those careers," he said.

At the event the chamber also recognized achievements of local schools including Crockett and Eastside Memorial high schools.