Texas A&M Working To Ensure Equal Paths to Education

Written by: CEHD Communications Staff
Post date: September 11, 2013

Dr. Luis Ponjuan, associate professor in the department of educational administration and human resource development, explores the reasons why Hispanic and African-American men are less likely than other males to attend a postsecondary institution and complete a degree. As chief external evaluator for the new Texas Consortium for Males of Color, he and other researchers hope to reverse the trend and find solutions to lagging graduation rates for Hispanic and African-American males.  

When Hector Funes entered Texas A&M University as a freshman, he quickly came to the realization that he wasn’t as prepared academically as many of his fellow Aggies, and he points to his public education in Texas as the reason why.

Funes, 23, had moved with his parents from San Antonio to his father’s birthplace of Honduras when he was an infant. He’d attended private school there until the fifth grade. “There’s a lot of poverty there and lots of gangs and criminal activity,” he recalls. After his father was shot and nearly killed in an attempted robbery in their Honduran home, the family returned to San Antonio, but medical bills and the higher cost of living meant they had to move in with his grandfather. The neighborhood was low-income and predominantly Hispanic, says Funes, and that’s where he and his three brothers entered the Texas public education system.

“They were inner-city schools and I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back now and meeting people from other places, I realized I had to play catch-up,” he explains. “The school buildings were old and rundown ― we had to share computers in computer class. It’s a high-crime area; people were dealing drugs and there were a lot of fights on campus.” Because of where they lived, contends Funes, educators assumed all the students were low-to-moderate achievers. “Senior year, we had an assembly where they talked to us about college, but the only people they invited were from community colleges; they just assumed that was the best we could do.”

Funes had developed an early interest in science and math, “but in my opinion, the classes were too easy,” he notes. “There were no AP classes in chemistry, biology and a lot of other subjects. And there were few options for electives like the arts and music. The classes they did have, they just skimmed the subjects ― it wasn’t in-depth. I like to learn because I’m curious about things, but if it’s not offered, I can’t learn it.”

Like Funes, millions of students flowing through the education pipeline have their own stories of struggle and triumph as they progress from preschool through high school and increasingly, to college. Leaders and scholars at universities, including Texas A&M, are brainstorming ideas to update and improve the education pipeline so all students have access to quality education.

The Education Pipeline

Known as P-16, the education pipeline is a term used to describe the levels of education from preschool through college. A properly flowing pipeline addresses students’ needs at every point along the way, ensuring progress at each level. It means all students have access to quality education and institutions are held accountable for results.

But a leaky pipeline allows students to slip through the cracks and drop out, or like Funes, graduate from high school under-prepared for college.

The Texas population is changing quickly and the education pipeline must evolve and adapt.

A Changing Population

Texas gained more people than any other state from July 2011-July 2012, according to the Census Bureau, and a growing population means added demands on the education system. The state’s population increased by 3.6 percent from 2010-2012, bringing the total count to more than 26 million, second only to California.

Not only is the population growing, the demographics are changing. The non-Anglo population, most notably Hispanics, is growing, while the Anglo population has declined, according to the Texas comptroller’s office. In 1980, Anglos comprised 65.7 percent of the total population, but by 2006, their share had declined to 48.3 percent. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population rose from 21 to 35.7 percent. The Texas State Data Center estimates that Hispanics will become the majority by 2020.

This shift is of particular concern when it comes to education, as Texas A&M researcher Luis Ponjuan is finding as he studies the growing achievement gap between males and females in college, specifically Hispanic and African-American males.

Ponjuan, a professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development, is exploring the reasons why Hispanic and African-American men are less likely than other males to attend college. He says although Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Texas, they are the least likely to participate in higher education.

“This gap between what will be needed in our educated workforce and where we are currently as a nation is severe,” he adds.

Reports by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) call for statewide efforts to increase college participation and success for Hispanic and African-American males. Ponjuan serves as chief external evaluator for the newly established Texas Education Consortium for Males Students of Color, which is based within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. With more than $1 million in secured funds from the Greater Texas Foundation, TG Foundation, the THECB and private support, the consortium hopes to reverse the trend and serve as a professional networking community to strategize and find solutions to lagging graduation rates for Hispanic and African-American males.

Fifteen school districts, community colleges and public universities, including Texas A&M, have joined the consortium. “This project allows the state’s two leading research institutions to leverage resources and advance the Latino and African-American male educational agenda at the state and national levels,” Ponjuan says.

High-Tech, High-Need Fields

Education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has taken center stage as the need grows for professionals who are proficient in these fields, “and we knew that we weren’t training enough of them,” says Joseph Morgan, professor of engineering technology at Texas A&M. “We realized it was imperative to do more outreach at the high school level. We want to engage students in the world of electronics and software development so they are prepared to meet the technical challenges of society.”

Students of all ages can have hands-on experiences in STEM fields through Texas A&M’s numerous outreach programs. For example, the Krisys Robotics Workshopwithin the Dwight Look College of Engineering, pairs high school students with Aggies to build robotic vehicles. In response to the growing need for engineers in Texas and nationally, Texas A&M plans to expand engineering enrollment to 25,000 by the year 2025. The university currently enrolls more than 11,000 engineering students annually, placing it among the largest in the nation.

Growing Student Success

Getting kids to go to college is the mission of organizations like the Posse Foundation which identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes. The students are put into multicultural teams of 10, or Posses. Partner colleges award Posse Scholars with four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships. Texas A&M is one of the first partners of Posse Houston and welcomed 10 Houston Posse Scholars into the university this fall, along with 10 more from Atlanta.

Once students begin attending college, the higher education pipeline can ensure student success and achievement. The Academic Success Center at Texas A&M was created to help students identify roadblocks to academic success, provide them with access to resources and help them achieve their highest academic potential.

James Kracht, assistant provost for undergraduate studies and the center’s executive director says: “Our goal is to help them master the necessary learning skills to earn their degrees in a timely manner, without a mountain of debt, and enter the workforce as productive members of society.”

Teaching The Teachers

Educating great teachers, especially in high-need STEM fields, is imperative to managing the changing pipeline. At Texas A&M, training superior teachers is the goal of such programs as aggieTEACH, an initiative designed to address the shortage of teachers in STEM. The program designs a degree plan for aspiring teachers to complete all major courses in science or math, and the necessary teaching certification courses in 120 hours. The plan ensures that Aggie teachers not only have deep content knowledge in their field but also graduate in four years.

A focus on positive recruiting is also part of the philosophy at A&M where they say, “‘Those who CAN, teach,’” according to David Byrd, assistant dean for undergraduate academic affairs at the College of Education and Human Development. “We combat the negative narrative that tells students and parents that teachers are undervalued. We describe a narrative that says good teachers transform lives.

“Our teachers should be more reflective of Texas demographics. We focus our recruitment efforts on urban schools and schools that serve a high number of students from populations that are traditionally under-represented, including first generation, low-income, African-American and Hispanic students.”

Engineering His Future

Funes is set to graduate in May 2014 and says he is thankful for the opportunities afforded to him by the university. With no financial support from his parents, Funes, a petroleum engineering major, attends Texas A&M through scholarships, financial aid and income from three part-time campus jobs. He’s struggled to maintain his grades and has used peer tutoring to fill the gaps. “I’m thankful that A&M hasn’t kicked me out,” he laughs. “I get bad grades here and there, but I don’t quit. I’m the first in my family to go to college and I want a better life for the kids I’ll have someday.”

Hopefully initiatives such as Generation TX San Antonio, an organization committed to making San Antonio a college-going, career-ready community in a single generation, in cooperation with the THECB, will have positive impacts on the public education system there.This past summer, Funes interned with a global petroleum engineering firm and plans to graduate in May 2014. He wants to work in the industry and later pursue graduate degrees.

“Texas A&M has provided me with so many opportunities,” he says. “I plan to repay that someday by setting up scholarships for students here because I know what a difference it makes, how education can change somebody’s life.”