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A warehouse manager in Waco went from earning about $9 an hour to earning more than $140,000 a year, thanks to an associate degree.
In College Station, a student with a developmental disability worked at an animal hospital through a college program tailored to her needs.
And in Austin, a call center worker was paid by her employer to go to college so she could be promoted to a medical assistant position.
In these instances, the students pursued associate degrees, alternative college programs and industry certifications that offer Texans the chance to expand their career options and their salary potential in a state hungry for more qualified workers.
More than half of jobs in the state require a credential higher than a high school diploma but lower than a bachelor’s degree, according to a report from July 2022. It’s one reason the state is aiming for 60% of Texans ages 25 to 64 to have a certificate or degree by 2030. But just 45% of Texans have the right training for these middle-skilled jobs.
Initiatives helping students to enter the workforce quickly aren’t new, but there is a new focus on equity. To better serve students, particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds, higher education leaders are moving to create shorter or earlier career and technical education opportunities that meet industry standards while offering high school and college students with pathways to bachelor’s and advanced degrees.
This is a marked difference from the history of vocational programs, in which students of color and women were often placed into high school job training classes that offered no pathway to college.
A movement to help all students go to college emerged in the 1990s, said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, a senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition, a policy and advocacy organization. But with increasing awareness of student debt in the 2000s and greater interest among students and employers in technical education, vocational programs reemerged and evolved into what is now known as career and technical education.
The rise of these programs partially stems from industries and jobs increasingly requiring specialized licenses or credentials, even if it’s not a college degree. For students, these programs are attractive because they allow them to get hands-on practice and, in some cases, paid work experience as they work toward a credential. This can be particularly beneficial for working adults or parents with less time and resources to seek a four-year degree, Bergson-Shilcock said.
Bachelor’s and more advanced degrees generally have a greater financial payoff, but people with two-year associate degrees and certificates in highly technical and in-demand fields, such as engineering technologies, can earn more than people with bachelor’s degrees in some lower-paying industries.
Texas has long invested in work-based education, but “that ramped up over the last couple of legislative sessions as the value of things like apprenticeships and other work-based learning opportunities became clear,” said Renzo Soto, a higher education policy adviser for Texas 2036, a nonprofit research organization.
In a room filled with rows of yellow robotic arms, students at TSTC’s Waco campus used computers to try to command the arms to read whether a black cutout in front of it was the right size and shape.
Manufacturers use such a process to ensure that the right bolt, screw or item is used to make a product. But this isn’t a factory. It’s a step toward high-paying jobs in manufacturing, production or warehouse operations.
More than two decades ago, Corey Mayo was a warehouse manager, earning about $9 an hour to support his wife and daughter.
“It just wasn’t cutting it for baby formula, diapers, food,” said Mayo, now 48.
So he enrolled at Texas State Technical College to study instrumentation and completed an associate degree in robotics. After more than a decade in the industry, traveling to manufacturing facilities to implement automated operations, he said he earned roughly $140,000 a year because of his ability to “fix anything in a short amount of time.”
“It’s because of everything that I learned here,” he said.
And Mayo’s 23-year-old son, Dalton, is following in his footsteps and studying robotics technology. He too would like to enter a high-paying field.
Stories like theirs are not uncommon at the college, which hires instructors from its graduate pool and sees many families return to the college for its hands-on and fast-tracked programs. The 20-month-long program for an associate degree of applied science in robotics and industrial controls technology costs around $11,640, and a 16-month certificate costs $6,984, according to TSTC. The average wage for an electro-mechanic or robotics technician is about $50,630 in Texas and $60,570 in the U.S., according to federal data.
The college also offers programs for various job fields expected to continue growing, such as cybersecurity and aircraft pilot training.
The aircraft pilot training program is one of the college’s more expensive programs, but pilot pay is on the higher end with average salaries in Texas of more than $180,060 for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers and $108,120 for commercial pilots. Tuition and fees for an associate degree in the program are $11,160, but the flight fees bring up the total to an estimated $89,260. Jobs are expected to grow by 21% for commercial pilots and by 14% for airline pilots and engineers in Texas.
The college also hires some of its graduates to serve as certified flight instructors while they work toward the required hours and ratings needed to work as a pilot in other roles.
“I’m already making back money and I’m already paying off my loans,” said Elaine Polster, a 22-year-old recent graduate who is now a certified flight instructor for the college. “If I went to a four-year school, it would be two more years until I did that.”
Associate degrees in applied science, which have a focus on technical education, and certificates are also available at community colleges across the state and through private, for-profit and nonprofit institutions. Examples of other public colleges include Alamo Colleges, Blinn College, San Jacinto College and Dallas College. You can find private technical schools through the Texas Workforce Commission’s directory. Financial aid, scholarships or other help may also be available for associate degrees and qualifying certificates.
On a Tuesday morning in October, Nora Hernandez Mondragon practiced carefully placing patches on the chest, arms and legs of a classmate lying in a medical examination bed.
The patches, which connect to a tangle of 10 wires, require precise placement to record the heart’s electrical activity in an electrocardiogram, or EKG, to detect irregular heart rhythms and heart attacks.
It’s one of the many things she learned at the Austin Community College’s San Gabriel Campus in Leander over nine weeks. She also learned basic medical terminology and anatomy; how to check a patient’s blood pressure and vital signs; how to administer medicines, including through an injection; and how to draw blood — all without paying a dime.
“It’s the perfect situation,” said Hernandez Mondragon, a 34-year-old Austin resident who worked at a call center for Baylor Scott & White Health. “I get to go learn something and develop myself and still be making income for my family.”
That’s because Hernandez Mondragon and her five classmates are part of a Baylor Scott & White apprenticeship. Through the program, employees can take an accelerated course at ACC and get hands-on experience to become medical assistants.
“Me being a mom, I would love to go to school but I don’t have the time or the money,” said Hernandez Mondragon, who is raising four children.
After completing the course and 160 hours of work in a clinical setting, Hernandez Mondragon and her classmates will work as medical assistants at Baylor Scott & White Health’s local clinics or hospitals for at least two years. The new job also comes with a pay raise, Hernandez Mondragon said.
Though this program serves Baylor Scott & White employees specifically, it’s one of a number of apprenticeships at ACC and across Texas.
In apprenticeships, individuals get the opportunity to learn and work toward a career, similar to an internship. But apprenticeships are typically longer than internships, include paid work and provide individuals with specialized skills and credentials.
“I’m locking the chair,” 22-year-old Sydney Hodge said as she practiced locking a wheelchair in place at the front of the classroom. Joe Tate, the class instructor, was sitting in the chair.
“Good. Remember, guys, communicate. The more communication, the better,” he told the handful of other students watching.
Then, Hodge helped Tate get out of the wheelchair, holding a gait belt around his upper waist and letting him place his hands on her shoulders for support as he slowly rose. The rest of the class clapped.
Hodge and her classmates were reviewing how to work as personal care attendants. Earlier that day, they discussed different types of bedpans and the organizations that support people with disabilities.
The class is part of the E4Texas program at the University of Texas at Austin. It prepares students for jobs as personal care attendants, child care workers or teaching assistants. The program is designed to be accessible to people with disabilities, but is also open to people without a disability.
The students also live on campus and get support from program staff to live independently and participate in the community, said Tate, E4’s program manager.
During the three-semester program, students take specialized classes at UT-Austin’s campus, audit other UT courses, volunteer and get work experience. Hodge and her classmate Ayala Montgomery, for example, have been helping care for elderly people as volunteers at AGE of Central Texas.
At the end, students receive a certificate of completion and can get job certifications, but they do not get college credits.
The program also teaches students to advocate for themselves and others. That’s one of the things that drew Montgomery.
“I also wanted to help people that actually struggle with disabilities, like to let them know that ‘you're not alone, and there's many people just like you that struggle with the same things day to day,’” said Montgomery, a 20-year-old from Dallas. “I wanted to leave an impact.”
There are other job preparation programs, including for people with disabilities. And if a program is approved by the Texas Workforce Commission, qualifying students may get help covering the program costs.
College for students with developmental disabilities
After sending a quick email, Julia Gault turned to work on a PowerPoint presentation she was making for her class. She pointed to images of animals and skateboards on the slides.
“So this is like when I graduate, I want to work at a vet clinic,” she said. “I skateboard, so I put my skateboards.”
Sitting next to Gault during a study hall period at Texas A&M University, Callie Colgrove said, “I want to own my own bakery,” showing off her own PowerPoint. She’s Gault’s best friend and roommate.
The two met through Aggie ACHIEVE, the university’s program designed for students with intellectual disabilities or autism to live independently, experience college and prepare for jobs.
Through the interdisciplinary program, students can take select noncredit courses and physical education courses and participate in student life at A&M. The students have access to graduate assistants who help them navigate classes and live on their own.
Initially, students live on campus. They get a residential mentor who spends five to nine hours a week with them during their freshman year, said Heather Dulas, the program director. As juniors, the students move off campus and can live on their own, though many have chosen to live together as roommates or in the same apartment complex. At the end, students receive a certificate from the university.
The transition was an adjustment for Gault, like for any college student, but through Aggie ACHIEVE she learned how to navigate her schedule and chores, like doing her laundry. Now, she works at an animal hospital, she said, and Colgrove works in the kitchen of a hotel and has baked chocolate pies.
Colleges and universities haven’t always accepted or accommodated students with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but there are now more options for these students.
These programs range in length, admission and costs. For example, Texas A&M’s program admits about 10 students per year and costs over $30,000 per year because of on-campus housing required for the first two years, program fees and a lack of state aid for the non-degree-seeking students.
There are also other programs and options for students with disabilities to audit courses at public or private colleges, and scholarships or other assistance may be available to help students cover costs. You can read more in our guide to college and job training programs for students with disabilities.
Disclosure: Baylor Scott & White Health, Houston Community College, San Jacinto College, Texas 2036, Texas A&M University, University of Texas at Austin and University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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