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Most Eighth-Graders Fail to Get Degree 11 Years Later

Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

 Among young Texans who started eighth grade in 2001, less than one-fifth went on to earn a higher education credential within six years of their high school graduation. And rates were even lower among African-American and Hispanic students and those who were economically disadvantaged, according to data analyzed by two state education agencies and presented Tuesday in a Texas Tribune news application.  

Since 2012, Houston Endowment, a philanthropic foundation and sponsor of the news app, has advocated for the use of “cohort tracking” to evaluate the state’s education pipeline. The analysis begins with all Texas students entering eighth grade in a given year and follows them for 11 years, giving them six years after high school to earn a post-secondary degree.  

George Grainger, senior program officer for Houston Endowment’s education initiatives, said he believes it’s a valid performance index for the entire education pipeline, not just higher education. “We felt if we put our name on this, we can talk about it in a way that a state agency is perhaps not able to,” he said.

Cohort tracking is something the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board had been doing for some time — but quietly. Houston Endowment approached the agency about running the numbers again and providing an annual snapshot of the education system, this time for public consumption.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes called the idea of using the simple, easy-to-understand metric — rather than standard metrics like college graduation rates — “a minor act of genius.”

“If your final number is 19 out of 100 students receiving some form of post-secondary credential, you know there’s an awful lot of leakage in the pipeline,” Paredes said.

Houston Endowment is careful not to be prescriptive in its cohort analysis. “We’re very careful in saying that we don’t know what the goal for the state should be for this index,” Grainger said, “nor are we saying how to get there.”

But he acknowledged that “intuitively,” the fact that just one out of five Texas students completes a post-secondary degree is “not what Texas needs, not what the kids of Texas need, not what employers need.”

Given predictions about the increasing difficulty of entering the workforce without a higher education credential, Paredes said he believed the state should be closer to 30 percent — and trending upward.

While it is difficult to compare Texas’ performance on this index with other states, since they don’t all have robust data collection systems, “we do know that we’re well behind other states like Massachusetts and California,” Paredes said. “We have a lot of work to do to catch up.”

Texas’ data collection isn’t perfect. The cohort analysis, for example, does not account for some productive post-secondary endeavors, such as military service and apprenticeship programs. Plus, if students move out of state, the system loses track of them until they move back in — meaning those who attend out-of-state colleges or universities and don't return aren’t counted. This omission could be corrected, Grainger said, but Texas does not currently pay to access National Student Clearinghouse data.

Houston Endowment released its first analysis in 2012 and partnered with the Tribune to do so in 2013.

Diana Natalicio is the president of the University of Texas at El Paso, which is located in a region where less than 16 percent of students who entered eighth grade in 2001 had earned a higher education credential by 2012. She has been a vocal critic of some metrics commonly used to evaluate higher education, most notably graduation rates, but said she supports Houston Endowment’s cohort analysis. “I applaud all efforts to try to develop metrics or ways of looking at the performance of young people in our society in different demographic categories,” she said.

Her one reservation about the organization’s previous reports was that they did not include information about socioeconomic status, which she called a “critical factor in shaping or determining people’s success.”

For the first time this year, the data is being released with information about students’ economic status when they entered eighth grade. Grainger said it was no surprise to learn that economically disadvantaged students are far less likely to earn a higher education credential than their peers.

In fact, that gap has been widening. For students who started eighth grade in 1996, those who were not disadvantaged completed a post-secondary credential at a rate that was 17.4 percentage points higher than those who were disadvantaged. For the students who enrolled in eighth grade in 2001, that gap was 19.2 percentage points.

These gaps among students who are economically disadvantaged cross ethnic groups. Among white students starting eighth grade in 2001, 32.2 percent of those who were not economically disadvantaged earned post-secondary degrees, compared with 8.5 percent of those who were disadvantaged. For African-Americans, those rates were 16.9 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively; for Hispanics, they were 18.6 percent and 9.2 percent.

Gender also appears to be a key factor in determining student outcomes, with females outperforming males in every ethnic group. More than 23 percent of females in the most recent cohort available completed a post-secondary degree, compared with less than 16 percent of males.

Grainger said the numbers among minority males are particularly troubling. With fewer than 10 out of every 100 earning a credential, he said, “the question is what is going on in the lives of the 90 who didn’t complete a college certificate or degree in this window. The answer to the question is probably not what the state needs.”

But Grainger added that he was pleasantly surprised to see that the state’s higher education completion had been slightly increasing each year, given Texas’ rapid population growth and the relative under-performance of Hispanic students (just 11.6 percent of those in the 2001 cohort completed a credential). 

“The good news is that things are getting better,” he said. “The challenge is that it’s going to become increasingly difficult for it to get better.”

Reeve Hamilton has interned at The Nation and The Texas Observer, for which he covered the 2009 legislative session. Most recently, he was a desk assistant at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. A Houston native, he has a bachelor's degree in English from Vanderbilt University.
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