College, is it worth the cost?

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This spring, thousands of Rio Grande Valley students will step off the stage at graduation and into the real world. Entering college after high school is society’s standard “next step”, but is it right for everyone? A college degree opens up a world of possibilities, yet getting one is time-consuming and expensive. How do we as parents, educators, and community mentors gauge if college is indeed the best option for the future of this generation — and of the Valley?

 

Zainab Zakari, Harlingen native and Stanford University graduate, knows a thing or two about the power of a college diploma. She’s learned about life and the critical choices that can make or break a career. She’s learned about following a passion, and about being prepared for the inevitable peaks and valleys of the working world.

However, she also knows that a college degree isn’t the only way to a successful, fulfilling career. Zakari, who boasts a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in addition to her “Harvard of the West Coast” diploma, ended up following an altogether different path than the one her studies laid out. This history major and certified journalist found her calling as a professional yoga instructor.

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Acknowledging that she is seriously in debt from her time in school (she owes more than $50,000 in student loans), Zakari says she is happy to be doing what she loves. “School is expensive. You have to understand that it’s a gamble,” she says. “But I wouldn’t change anything. I certainly feel the value of my degrees each day,”

“The skills I learned from my education – how to communicate, how to problem solve, and how to think critically – make me a much better yoga instructor,” Zakari explains. She also points out the subtler benefits of a college degree. “You learn a great deal from simply being in college. The relationships you have with your professors outside of the classroom teach you about professionalism, advocating for yourself, and being a self-starter. And, college gives you a chance to build a strong network of friends and mentors. It’s hard to find that anywhere else.”

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“I am grateful to be able to look at what I have done, and see that I have learned valuable skills that can easily translate into work I am really passionate about. There really isn’t a straight path to jobs,” she says. “But if you’re willing to be creative with your skills, you can cultivate any type of work or focus you put your mind to. That is a special thing to learn, and it comes with experience.”

Not the Only Way

For Zainab Zakari and countless others, higher education has been absolutely worthwhile. Others, however, find that there are better ways to ensure a bright future in this day and age. For instance, RGV LEAD, a non-profit organization housed in Texas State Technical College in Harlingen, believes professional experience is a better bet than classroom learning.

“The job market has changed so much. Even with a four year degree, there is no guarantee you’re going to have a job,” said Dr. Norma Salaiz, director of RGV LEAD. “It really comes down to having real world experience. Hands-on experience is going to open up doors to help young people find and keep a job. If students know what they are interested in and pursue it, there is no limit to what they can do.”

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RGV LEAD’s goal is to help students identify their future interests early, giving them a head start on gaining work experience. The organization does this by facilitating collaborative relationships between education and industry, linking academia with the world outside the classroom.

“Our goal is to help increase career awareness in students so they are able to make important life decisions at an earlier age,” Salaiz said. “Students should understand their options before deciding to enroll in college or not. And so should teachers and parents. We bring all critical partners to the table to help students make the best decisions for their future.”

Education and Economy in the Rio Grande Valley

32 percent of Rio Grande Valley residents live at or below the poverty line. This is over three times the national rate and 19 percentage points higher than the state rate, according to the U.S. Census. The Valley also has a much higher percentage of households with an annual income of less than $25,000 than that of the nation and the state.

How can this cycle of poverty be broken? How can today’s students, parents, educators, and community members lift the Valley out of hardship? Most experts agree that staffing high-paying jobs with qualified local employees is the key. But how does the Valley attract such jobs? And what is the best way to build a talented workforce – specific, hands-on experience, as RGVLEAD suggests, or a well-rounded skill set learned in college?

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Those who believe that a college diploma is the best anti-poverty tool available point out that the unemployment rate of individuals who have never gone to college is nearly twice as high as that of those with college degrees, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report entitled “The Rising Cost of NOT Going to College.” The report also points out that young adults with college degrees earn around $15,500 more per year than those with associate’s degrees, and $17,500 more than those with no college at all.

Besides increasing individual earning potential, a college degree can influence the financial well-being of an entire community. Support for this position comes from the Census Bureau American Community Survey. In this study, areas where educational attainment is low struggle to attract industries with stable, high-paying jobs. This creates a reinforcing cycle of poverty in which families that cannot afford advanced degrees are justified in their choice to not attend college. Why pay for the degree if you have to leave home to use it? This cycle ends as more community members return home to work after college. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen enough in the Rio Grande Valley.

This community-wide departure of educated workers actually has a name: brain drain. Brain drain is one of the Rio Grande Valley’s major economic challenges. Educated Valley residents leave the community because they cannot find good-paying jobs close to home. These young people may not want to leave, but they have to do so in order to find suitable employment.

The Valley is growing by leaps and bounds. As the population swells with more and more potential earners, the region will come to an economic tipping point: will the new generation of workers stay in the Valley, or will they depart? According to a 2012 Census report, the Rio Grande Valley has a population of more than 1.3 million, 27 percent of which is comprised of school-aged children. Texas Education Agency figures show that during the 2012-2013 school year there were 416,353 public school students in the seven-county region. That’s nearly half a million individuals who could help – or hinder – the Rio Grande Valley’s future.

Regional Advantages

Brain drain and high poverty rates are real challenges, but the Valley’s economic future isn’t all bleak. For one thing, the region boasts a significant advantage: a growing population of bilingual students moving through the public schools. Bilingual employees are highly sought-after in today’s increasingly international world.

Furthermore, the Rio Grande Valley public school systems offer a variety of college preparatory programs. Most Rio Grande Valley school districts offer training programs or even early college high schools where students are able to graduate with associates degrees. If these students already have career goals in place, they are far ahead of their peers when they enter the workforce. These programs equip students with the knowledge and skills they need for workplace success.

Dr. Salaiz, director of RGV LEAD, expands on the value of these programs. “We have a lot of early college programs and early college high schools that offer training programs where students graduate with associates degrees,” she says. “If students know what their career goals are and enroll in a training program that aligns with these goals, they often save time and tuition money.”

The Importance of Planning Ahead

In Texas in 2012, the percentage of students attending four-year universities on a part-time basis was 22 percent. That percentage is much larger in the Rio Grande Valley. At the University of Texas – Pan American, for example, the part-time student percentage was 25.4 percent. At the University of Texas at Brownsville, another popular local university, 40.6 percent of students said they attended part-time.

The statewide percentage of students attending part-time at two year colleges was 70.9 percent. Interestingly, two-year colleges in the Rio Grande Valley report lower percentages of part-time students. South Texas College reported 68.9 percent, Texas Southmost College reported 69 percent and Texas State Technical College came in at 57.1 percent.

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The number of students attending school part-time or attending two-year colleges is important because those students are at risk. They take much longer to complete their programs. Worse, according to the Texas Board of Higher Education, most will drop out before completing their degree. For example, In Texas, 58.7 percent of full-time students attending a four-year university will earn a degree in six years. At a community college, this number drops to 24.4 percent.

Of course, it’s not always possible to attend school full-time. How can Rio Grande Valley students protect themselves from dropping out or taking too long to finish college, yet still be able to work to cover some of the costs? Dr. Salaiz suggests that careful research and planning can help.

“The cost of tuition is so high and the time and effort it takes to get a degree is so great that students need to make sure they can maximize their college years,” Dr. Salaiz says. One example of the importance of research relates to financial aid regulations. Financial aid has gotten more strict in recent years. Some schools only provide aid up to a certain amount of hours. If a student decides on a major freshmen year, but changes his or her mind sophomore year, that student has to start all over and may lose their financial aid qualification.

“We have a high percentage of low socioeconomic status students in the RGV,” Dr. Salaiz explains, “So it’s even more critical that they know how to maximize the assistance available to them. Planning and research can ensure students don’t lose out on that opportunity.”

Planning ahead is also important for educators and parents. For school systems, this includes identifying what prospective employers want to see. According to Dr. Salaiz, “Business and industry are about hiring people. As a community, we need to pay attention to the employee profile companies are looking for. If the main goal of our school districts is to prepare students for success, we have to know how to do that.”

RGV LEAD specializes in preparing young men and women for success in their chosen career. The first step RGV LEAD has students complete is a thorough research session. This includes market research, such as application processes, payscales, benefits, and more. It also includes some personal research. Students need to ask themselves if they plan to stay in the Valley or move elsewhere. Research indicates that most students pursuing four-year degrees in their area of choice have not taken the time to see what job opportunities are available in their new location.

“Young people need to ask themselves if they are going to stay in the Rio Grande Valley or move throughout the state or nation. They need to do at least preliminary searches on job opportunities in their field of interest before deciding where to live,” Salaiz says.

The same advice – do your research – also applies to the questions of whether or not to attend college. “If a student is trying to gauge if college is right for them, they should first look at their career interests,” says Dr. Salaiz. “They should check out whether that career requires a degree, whether college-degree-holding employees earn more, and whether there are any job opportunities available in that field.” Answering these preliminary questions before deciding to attend college can save students time and money.

“It really comes down to students needing to do their research,” Dr. Salaiz says emphatically. Districts and educators can help students by ensuring this research is done in a timely manner. Research should begin early enough so that students can take advantage of early college, college preparatory classes, internship opportunities, and more.

Advice for Parents

Students and educators play vital roles in preparing for a successful life. But perhaps no role is more important in ensuring a bright future than that of the parent. Diana Verduzco, a professional counselor with Guzman and Associates in McAllen, spent her career working mostly with young adults. She would coordinate with students and their schools to ensure success in and out of the classroom. Verduzco brought her career knowledge into her own home, and is a prime example of how parents can make a difference for their children.

Verduzco is the mother of three grown children who have all gone on to successful careers. Her oldest child, Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, is a physical medicine and rehab specialist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston. Another daughter, Melinda, is a physician’s assistant at the Bariatric Medical Institute in San Antonio. Finally, Verduzco’s son Rene is a pharmacist in the Rio Grande Valley. How did Verduzco ensure such brilliant success for her children? By conveying to them the same message she gave to her students. “I told them, ‘You have to earn it,’” she says.

“From day one, I expected more from my kids,” says Verduzco. “I wasn’t satisfied with ‘C’ grades because I knew they were better than that. For my son, I didn’t accept anything below a 90. I always kept asking for more. I was very involved with their extracurricular activities. I would attend their games and recitals, whether it was a band performance, track meet or basketball game. I also made sure to visit their schools during parents’ night or PTA meetings.”

Verduzco comes by her emphasis on hard work and parental involvement honestly. “My father always told me that an education was something nobody could take away. It’s so important,” she says. Her combination of high expectations and a constant show of support just may be the secret formula to successful parenting.

Verduzco’s message to parents is to find a way to enable their children to make their own choices, and to make absolutely sure they know what they are getting into after high school. “At one point, I had my children write out the advantages and disadvantages of the jobs they were pursuing,” Verduzco said. “It never mattered to me what they did, but I just wanted to be sure they knew what was coming up ahead.”

Whether the path ahead includes a college degree, an associate’s degree, or no degree at all, planning ahead is critical. The Valley is growing at an unprecedented rate, and there has never been a better time to make a difference in its economic future. With careful planning and a show of support for the younger generation, we can ensure that difference is a positive one.