Though the overall percentage of Central Texas high school students who go straight to college has been flat for the past four years, college admissions for low-income students are on the rise.
Buried in data released last week was a 6 percentage point gain for low-income students that, while modest, means that now 46 percent of low-income students go straight to college; for all students, the rate is 61 percent.
At some individual schools, the gains have been much higher. The rate of low-income students going straight to college from Anderson High school in Austin, for example, has nearly doubled — from 32 percent to 63 percent. High schools in Manor and Del Valle have also posted substantial increases.
“Central Texas is doing a better job of getting our low-income students into college,” said Drew Scheberle, the vice president for education and talent development for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
But the percentage of all students going to college needs to improve for Austin to keep a competitive work force, he said: “We’re happy we’re improving, but we’re not improving fast enough.”
In schools posting the greatest gains, district officials and other education leaders attribute much of the progress to counselors who consistently track students’ academic progress, whether they apply for college and if they fill out the financial aid forms.
“The campuses where there are the biggest increases, they are going down the list of seniors and tracking where each one is,” said Edmund Oropez, the Austin district associate superintendent of high schools. “It’s not a change of practice, but identifying our underrepresented groups like low-income families. It’s made a big difference in those particular schools.”
As the percentage of low-income students continues to rise in school districts across Central Texas, educators are increasingly being judged on their ability to help those students succeed.
“Now we’re in the situation where we’ve seen this demographic shift and it’s put a great burden on the school districts,” said Greg Cumpton, research associate with the Students Futures Project at the Ray Marshall Center at the University of Texas. “Not just to provide the same services, but to raise the expectation for these individuals who are from backgrounds less likely to go to college and have a greater share of them go on to college.”
The Students Future Project is a research partnership that tracks Central Texas high school students as they transition into college or careers, and uses National Student Clearing House data and student surveys, among other things.
Low-income graduates from the Manor school district posted some of the highest straight-to-college gains, improving 18 percentage points to 54 percent in 2012. The greatest increase came in 2010, when the district hired a college and career coordinator for Manor High School. That same year came the first graduating class from Manor New Tech High School — recently toasted by President Barack Obama for its success in educating low-income and minority students with a project-based learning curriculum.
“The overarching factor in all of this is the emphasis in the college-going culture, changing how we think, and how we counsel our kids and that we provide them with different opportunities,” said Manor Superintendent Kevin Brackmeyer, who was principal at Manor High when the school made its greatest gains. Brackmeyer said school leaders had to intensify efforts to find scholarship opportunities, as paying for college often is one of the greatest hurdles for students.
“We knew we had to get together and get our students focused and move them in the right direction,” he said. “It really was a huge undertaking to move them in the right direction, and as a school community, to push our students toward that end goal.”
Counselors at Central Texas schools now have more tools to track students’ progress.
The chamber of commerce, which is pumping $1.5 million into improving high school graduation rates and college enrollment, last year paid for the new Counselors Portal program for area districts, to show counselors real-time data on whether students have enough credits to graduate, have taken their college entrance exams, or have received a meningitis vaccine required for Texas colleges.
The chamber’s funding also goes toward tutoring graduating students who are not-college ready and this past summer’s pilot, Summer Melt, which paid high school counselors through the summer to help students, particularly those who are the first-generation college-goers, to finish the application process.
As well as traditional counselors assigned to campuses, the Austin district has hired additional counselors for its Project Advance program to help ensure students are college and career ready.
“You can look at every senior in your school and see where they are now, whether they are on track to graduation, whether they have passed all their tests,” said Oropez, of the Austin school district. “It gives the Project Advance counselor the tools necessary to track and make sure the child is set to go all the way to college.”
Straight to college
Since 2008, eight Central Texas high schools have posted double-digit gains in the percentage of low-income students going straight to college after they graduate.
High School / District / 2008 / 2009 / 2010 / 2011 / 2012 / Percentage Point Gain
Akins / Austin / 34% / 46% / 43% / 49% / 45% / +11
Anderson / Austin / 32% / 56% / 59% / 65% / 63% / +31
LASA / Austin / 60% / 83% / 74% / 86% / 79% / +19
LBJ / Austin / 40% / 49% / 44% / 46% / 53% / +13
Del Valle / Del Valle / 40% / 49% / 53% / 49% / 52% / +12
Westlake / Eanes / 50% / 71% / 58% / 33% / 63% / +13
Manor / Manor / 36% / 37% / 47% / 46% / 54% / +18
John B. Connally / Pflugerville / 46% / 52% / 55% / 56% / 57% / +11
Source: University of Texas Ray Marshall Center, National Student Clearinghouse