More Texans are earning higher education degrees within six years of graduating from high school than ever before. But the year-over-year growth is painfully slow: 19 percent of Texans who started eighth grade in 2001 got degrees within six years of graduating high school. Among the 324,000 students who started eighth grade two years later, it was 20 percent.
And attainment is staggeringly low among economically disadvantaged black and Hispanic students; their six-year degree rates are an abysmal 8 percent and 11 percent, respectively.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Education Agency began anonymously tracking degree outcomes starting with students who entered eighth grade in 1998 — a type of analysis called “cohort tracking” because it focuses a single class. While incremental, there have been year-over-year upticks in degree rates across most ethnic and economic categories.
Wynn Rosser, president of the Greater Texas Foundation, which works to increase post-secondary enrollment and completion in Texas, said the cohort tracking data is particularly useful because it includes students who drop out of college or high school, and because it breaks results down by county.
“It offers an unbiased perspective of how Texas students are progressing, or not progressing, in the education pipeline,” Rosser said. “It unites K-12 and higher ed, and really puts the focus on the student instead of the system.”
Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said he wants to see the percentage of Texans earning a degree within six years of high school graduation climb to 60 percent by 2030 — a far cry from the one in five students who currently do. This improvement is urgent: Without such credentials, he said, it will become increasingly difficult to enter the state's workforce.
“It’s going to be quite a challenge to get there,” Paredes said. “We have challenges throughout the education pipeline. We have students dropping out in high school; we have students who don’t get information about going to college.”
Cohort tracking is an important first step, Paredes said, because of how much "misinformation" exists in Texas around student outcomes. The next step? Counseling students at a young age about college and financial aid.
"A couple of years [ago] in the Legislature there were discussions and claims that we were sending too many people to the universities,” Paredes said. “The numbers indicate that we send a relatively small portion of kids out of high school into college, and we need to do a much better job of helping students complete their credentials.”
The disparities among those who started eighth grade in 2003 are obvious:
- Thirty percent of students who were not economically disadvantaged earned higher education credentials, compared with just 10 percent of economically disadvantaged students. While both groups' outcomes have improved since state officials first began tracking the data, the gap between them has steadily widened.
- Roughly 13 percent of black and Hispanic students earned degrees within six years of graduating high school, compared with 29 percent of white students and 41 percent of Asian students.
- There was even a gap in gender. Twenty-four percent of women earned higher ed degrees in that time period, while 17 percent of men did.
There was less geographic diversity in degree attainment; the Texas Education Agency-set regions that divide up the state all hovered within a few points of 20 percent.
Among individual counties, there was a wider range. Fort Bend County had one of the highest degree-attainment rates, with 30 percent — or 2,038 students — earning a credential within six years of graduating from high school. Bexar County fell on the lower end of the spectrum, with 17 percent — or 3,517 students — getting a higher education credential.
Lisa Hall, vice president for programs at the Houston Endowment, a private philanthropic foundation that provided support for The Texas Tribune to develop a data app around the cohort results, said that when educators, policymakers and community leaders have reliable information about educational conditions, they make more informed decisions that lead to better outcomes for all students. The data "highlights the shared responsibility of public K-12 schools and higher education to create better outcomes for our students," she added.
Rosser said his foundation has been using the data for six years as it advocates for increased college enrollment in Texas. To increase the rates of students earning higher education degrees, Rosser said, the state needs to make more dramatic changes, like providing more access to dual-credit classes and make transferring between colleges easier.
“We can agree and disagree on strategy and ideology, but hopefully no one would agree that 20 percent is good enough for Texans,” Rosser said.
Disclosure: Raymund Paredes is a donor to The Texas Tribune. The Houston Endowment was a major donor to the Tribune in 2009 and 2013, and the Greater Texas Foundation was a major donor to the Tribune in 2012 and 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.