The best investment a community can make toward its future is in the education of its children.
That is why The University of Texas-Pan American, The University of Texas System and The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) have asked businesses and philanthropic groups to help them and other higher education institutions and the public school systems in South Texas fund initiatives that will allow more students to attend and graduate from college.
UTPA hosted the second UT System VistaSummit at its renovated Haggar Building, 1407 E. Freddy Gonzalez Drive, April 17. The summit focused on pitching four initiatives the Rio Grande Valley's universities, community colleges and independent school districts are developing to help students obtain a postsecondary education in less time and with less money.
UT Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa summarized the goals of the previous summit held at UT Brownsville in October 2011 and said those who attended shared the belief that improving education in the Rio Grande Valley was vital in moving the Valley forward and that education transformation would take place.
"I am absolutely convinced that if we work collectively ... we will advance this region as a leader by providing innovative solutions to the problems we face in education, health care and economic development," Cigarroa said.
In four panels, educators explained the four initiatives: developing a master of academy of teachers to further train educators in subjects they are assigned to teach; expanding dual enrollment and early college high school initiatives to schools throughout the Valley; providing students with counselors from the time they enter eighth grade through their sophomore year in college to help them transition into higher education; and developing a rigorous, accelerated four-year master's degree program for students entering universities with college credits they earned while in high school.
"We have one purpose and one purpose only: to graduate as many students as we can, as quickly as we can with the best education we can give them," UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen said.
That mission is imperative to the future of Texas, said representatives from the nonprofit groups present.
Philanthropic organizations that had representatives in attendance included TG, Complete College America, the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Greater Texas Foundation, the Greater Communities Foundation, Houston Endowment, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and Educate Texas.
Though college enrollment is growing, Texas still lags behind in producing college graduates to fill jobs in Texas that require a postsecondary education, said Wynn Rosser, president and CEO of the Greater Texas Foundation.
Only about one in five Texas students who started middle school from 1996 to 1998 obtained a postsecondary certificate or degree within 11 years, according to George V. Grainger, director of research and planning for the Houston Endowment.
Even though college enrollments nationally are at their highest they've ever been, too many students are either dropping out or taking too long to finish, costing them more money to get a degree. And remedial classes, which were originally designed to help students ill prepared for higher education catch up to their peers, have proven to be ineffective, said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America.
Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, stressed the need for high-quality teachers in the classroom, especially for children from low-income families, to ensure students are well prepared and inspired to obtain a higher education.
Students receiving an education from a teacher who graduated from college in the top quartile gained about a year's worth more education than those pupils who were taught by someone who graduated from college in the bottom quartile, Haycock said.
Attendees also heard from a panel of students from the area's higher education institutions and McAllen Achieve Early College High School - moderated by TSTC President Cesar Maldonado - about their experiences in school and how these initiatives could help students like them.
"We need help we're not asking for charity what we're asking for is an investment," said Jorge Munoz, a UTB graduate and current UTPA graduate student, said to the philanthropic groups. "We're not asking for our academics to be easier. If anything, make it harder."
At the end of the conference, Cigarroa encouraged the nonprofit groups and business leaders in attendance to form partnerships with the educational institutions to improve the quality of education for the Valley's students.
"South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley can become a crucible on which we introduce many innovative programs that address these challenges and our success will make us a national model," Cigarroa said.
UT System and its Valley institutions will hold two more summit conferences: in health care and economic development. For more information, visit the VistaSummit website.