Strongly encouraged by his migrant worker parents to seek an education beyond high school, Alexander De Leon made up his mind at an early age to go to college. After moving from Texas to Mexico with his family as a fourth-grader, De Leon made a conscious effort to keep up his English speaking and writing skills so that he could eventually rely on them to apply to a U.S. college.
Fortunately for De Leon, his parents returned to the Texas panhandle region with him and his two younger brothers just prior to his ninth-grade year. The move allowed him to resume an English-based education in Tulia, Texas.
“My parents have been behind me going to college all the way,” De Leon says.
This fall, De Leon is a freshman scholarship recipient at West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) in Canyon. Over the summer, De Leon got a head start on college classes in a program called the University Success Academy (USA). The six-week program allowed De Leon and 17 other students to take two courses for credit while giving them the opportunity to adjust to college life. Aimed at students who are among the first in their immediate families to attend college, the academy has helped increase the school’s retention of them, according to West Texas A&M officials.
“There are things we’ve created plus orientation programs that target (first-generation) students and their families that are just for them and are specific to the issues they’re facing,” says Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, the associate vice president for academic affairs at West Texas A&M.
West Texas A&M administrators created the USA in 2004, which was largely funded through the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s First Generation College Student (FGCS) program. Each participating student receives free tuition, room and board, books and supplies for two summer classes. One course is a mandatory interdisciplinary class, while the other is a core requirement chosen by the student.
This past summer, West Texas A&M administrators took the step of funding the University Success Academy solely through university resources. Lowery-Hart says taking full responsibility for the academy reflects the interest of campus officials to institutionalize and offer it as an annual program.
Since 2002, numerous programs targeting students in pre-college and college years have sprung up in Texas colleges and K-12 school districts. Although state-administered federal funding has dried up over the past year for outreach programs, Texas officials nevertheless consider the First Generation College Student campaign a critical component of the state’s ambitious “Closing the Gaps” initiative. Adopted in 2000 by Texas officials, Closing the Gaps established the goal of adding 630,000 students by 2015 to reach a total enrollment of 1.6 million students at 143 Texas public and independent higher education institutions. The target enrollment for 2010 is 1.4 million students.
By fall 2006, the Texas H i g h e r Education Coordinating Board repor ted that roughly 2 1 7 , 0 0 0 additional students since 2000 had enrolled in state institutions. Despite “substantial early growth, statewide enrollment began slowing down around fall 2003, reflecting limited growth for each of the three major ethnic groups in Texas: White, Hispanic and African-American,” according to the board. While Black, White and o v e r a l l state enrollment growth rates are on target, the Hispanic growth has only reached 70 percent of projection.
“Clearly, we need even greater increases to achieve state participation goals,” Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund A. Paredes has said in response to slowing enrollment growth.
Officials believe that substantially increasing college enrollment and graduation will enable the state to have a workforce that will effectively compete against other U.S. states in attracting, retaining and growing companies and industries. Other goals call for state-based institutions awarding 210,000 more degrees by 2015 over what they awarded in 2000. Texas colleges and universities are also expected to increase their nationally recognized academic programs and increase research to garner 6.5 percent of the entire federal research budget.
THE BIG PICTURE
Although advocates for higher education access have grown worried over the recent slowdown in overall enrollment growth, they credit Texas officials for having developed a plan that pays close attention to the demographics of its growing minority communities. In the late 1990s, Texas higher education came under national scrutiny after the Hopwood federal court ruling in 1996 banned the use of race-conscious affirmative action. Though officials responded by enacting the Texas 10 Percent plan to ensure minority access to the elite public Texas campuses of the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, they also acted to broaden overall access to higher education with the Closing the Gaps plan.
Despite recent disputes with the state Legislature over higher education funding, Texas Gov. Rick Perry gets a share of the credit for his role in supporting the Closing the Gaps initiative.
“When I first learned of the plan from Gov. Perry’s announcement in 2002, I was really intrigued. I was encouraged by the fact that there was a state, one of the largest, that was going to focus on first-generation students by providing them resources,” says Dr. Lamont Flowers, distinguished professor of educational leadership and executive director of the Charles H. Houston Center for the Study of the Black Experience in Education at Clemson University.
“I think the last, probably, 10 years has been a very credible moment in higher education policy and state legislative policy in Texas … . The Texas victory on college access is the culmination of various policies,” says Dr. Stella M. Flores, assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University.
Flores adds that Texas legislators have been successful as diversity advocates. “They’ve got very active minority legislators. Hopwood came down in 1996 and then you saw a movement among minority legislators coming together to try to implement this  percent plan that might preserve some form of diversity,” she says.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision that upheld the use of race in academic admissions, the University of Texas at Austin has permitted administrators to employ race-conscious admissions policies as they once did prior to the Hopwood decision. Texas A&M officials have opted not to bring back race-conscious affirmative action to its admissions practices.
Dr. Donald Heller, the director of Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University, says Texas benefits from having first-generation college student outreach “be done in parallel with affirmative action.”
“I think both of them are important. Affirmative action allows institutions to focus particularly on specific racial groups that in the past have been discriminated against or have been underrepresented whereas first-generation programs, if they are race neutral, are going to be reaching different populations,” Heller says.
At schools, such as West Texas A&M University, administrators have concentrated on reaching their local populations to attract first-generation college students. Lowery- Hart says that over the past three years the school of 5,700 undergraduates has gone from 42 percent of its enrollment being first-generation college students to 68 percent. The high percentage of first-generation students reflects the fact that educational attainment in western Texas has traditionally been low, according to Lowery-Hart.
“For us, we’ve seen a real increase in the number of first-generation students that are on our campus and that we’re serving. We think there are specific programs that we’ve created that are helping our students and have contributed to that increase,” Lowery- Hart says.
“We have a freshman success course that any student can take, but we have sections of it that target first-generation students and are specific to that population,” he adds.
AN EVOLVING MODEL
West Texas A&M officials report that the campus has long had federally sponsored initiatives, such as TRIO programs, to support first-generation college students with academic support and counseling. As the progeny of migrant workers, De Leon currently participates in the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), a federal program that targets the children of migrant workers for tutoring and academic workshops.
“Students in the CAMP program tend to be first-generation students. We’ll have 20 to 40 students a year who come into the program,” says Dan D. Garcia, vice president for enrollment management at West Texas A&M.
Although state and federal funding has been critical, campus officials recognized that West Texas had to evolve its own set of programs to effectively serve a student body that is predominantly first generation. Lowery- Hart says that although Hispanics make up 20 percent of the student body, its firstgeneration programming has been driven more by class-based outreach efforts than one defined by a push for racial diversity. He adds that West Texas A&M wants greater racial diversity on its campus and has largely focused on recruiting Hispanic students in west Texas.
“I think we’ve given (first generation) a new focus in the last two years where it has really become a centerpiece of our programming and in our conversation,” Lowery-Hart says. “When 68 percent of your students are first generation, you can’t ignore it.”
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