By the time Uriel Ureña and Celine Martinez graduate high school, they will be about half way through college.
Ureña, a senior at Valley View High School, and Martinez, a senior at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School, are both enrolled in Early College High School (ECHS) programs and will earn both an associate degree as well as a high school diploma upon graduation. They plan to complete their undergraduate education at The University of Texas-Pan American.
They are among 600-700 students enrolled in the ECHS programs - which are administered by South Texas College (STC) - who are expected to attend UTPA in Fall 2013 in pursuit of bachelor's degrees. Earlier in the semester, UT Pan American hosted almost 400 ECHS students, who will graduate this spring, for Early College Day to welcome perspective Broncs into their new academic home.
"This is a relatively new phenomenon for UTPA, so we are working together with STC to help the early college high school seniors make a smooth transition into their intended majors," said Marilyn Hagerty, director of UTPA's University Academic Advising Center.
Sofia M. Pena, ECHS coordinator at STC, believes there is significant evidence that the ECHS program is effective and working in the Rio Grande Valley. According to STC statistics, the number of participating high schools has increased every year since 2007 when the program began in Progreso Independent School District. There are now 15 high schools in the Rio Grande Valley participating with STC and collaborating with UTPA.
Often, the economic pressure associated with obtaining a college education proves difficult for some students and families. The chance for students to obtain associate degrees and college credits while still in high school alleviates a significant portion of the financial burden.
Ureña and Martinez are both expected to enter UT Pan American next fall with more than 60 college credits each. Most undergraduate programs at UTPA require about 120 coursework credits to earn a bachelor's degree.
"The ECHS program has provided me with the chance to take college classes, which means I will spend less time in college and less money and it will allow me to graduate sooner," said Ureña, who plans to obtain his bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
Martinez, who plans to major in English, said the program helped her financially as well as get a head start on her higher education.
"It has covered my textbooks, my classes, and it has helped me and my family in so many ways," she said.
While some concerns indicate that younger students often have trouble acclimating to upper division coursework, UTPA is preparing to meet these difficult challenges.
"Although they are young, many of these students are already taking classes on the STC campus with older college students," Hagerty said. "In planning these early orientations, UTPA will be more equipped to help students and provide them with a support system to transition smoothly into their upper division courses and also help the University anticipate how many students will be entering into their respective colleges."
Griselda Castilla, director of Undergraduate Recruitment, perceives a particular advantage ECHS students have coming into the University right out of high school.
"Since these students are already coming into UTPA with college credits or with their associate degrees, it is our hope these students will get their bachelor's degree within a four year time frame, or sooner, and continue on to graduate school. Since they are so young, they may reconsider delaying entrance into the workforce and make themselves more marketable by pursuing and achieving higher graduate degrees," Castilla said.
When she finishes at UT Pan American, Martinez has plans to continue her post graduate studies.
"After graduation, I plan to pursue a job in graduate elementary education or possibly go to law school," she said.
Contributions from sponsors and partners, such as The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the W.G. Kellogg Foundation, and other local sponsors, help fund the ECHS initiative.
For more information, contact the Office of Undergraduate Recruitment at (956) 665-8942. For more information on the Early College Early High School Initiative, visit its website at www.earlycolleges.org.