On a chilly afternoon in November, at least 100 young students packed into a classroom at South Texas College’s Pecan Campus to get their first taste of college.
Ushered into their seats, the PSJA Collegiate High School students gathered to be ceremoniously and officially welcomed into college for the first time as freshmen.
It’s a big step, and the students are constantly being reminded of this by STC Dual Credit Program staff.
Addressing some students as young as 14, Osiel Sanchez, a Dual2Degree specialist with the college, began the day by asking students to define a jaguar — receiving a few snickers in the process.
Undoubtedly expecting a wide range of answers, Sanchez utilized the lighthearted moment to emphasize the seriousness of what the students were getting into.
“Yes, a jaguar can be a car, mammal, and a jungle cat, but here at STC, it’s much more than that,” Sanchez told students shortly before the college mascot, Jerry, showed up to greet students in person. “It represents our student body, and each of our students is committed to their success in and out of the classroom.”
Welcome to STC’s Dual Credit Fast Track Initiative — a new student onboarding program designed to meet the needs of first-time dual credit students. As part of this initiative, college staff works collaboratively with school districts to coordinate STC campus visits year-round for students getting their first glimpse of college life.
Over the course of the next three hours or so, the students were officially pinned, sworn-in, given a tour of the campus, and finally registered to begin their college experience.
“It has been a really unique experience,” said Carolina Monjaraz, a freshman at PSJA Collegiate High School who says she would like to begin a degree in criminal justice. “It’s so cool that students get to be a part of this. I know it will be a hard path, but I know it will be worth it when I look back one day.”
In fall 2017, STC implemented the Dual Credit Fast Track Initiative to prepare students for their first semester in college. Through the initiative, all students participate in a half-day campus visit that includes a campus tour, advisement, a review of academic progress standards, and finally registration to the college.
The importance? A recent study conducted by the Research & Analytical Services Department at STC found that students who participate in the Fast Track Initiative tend to have higher academic success rates than students who do not participate.
“This is unique because not everyone has the opportunity to take classes at such a young age,” said Diego Gomez, another freshman from PSJA Collegiate who attended the half-day event at STC. “I appreciate getting the exposure to the college life early on. When I actually begin college after high school, I feel attending will be routine and I will be ready to go.”
While many higher education institutions are focused on expanding dual credit enrollments, STC Dual Credit Program staff say they have developed unique onboarding and transition services for dual credit students to ensure their academic success. In fact, STC has been contacted or visited by various institutions seeking to adopt the college’s best practices.
College staff have presented at state and national conferences to highlight the institution’s student service framework.
It reinforces a dual credit program that lifted itself from humble beginnings in one of the nation’s poorest regions, ending up among the largest in the country not only for serving students, but also for enabling them to receive a college credential — many before their 18th birthday.
“When we started this program, we were looking at those missing links for college success, and we found that because many of these students didn’t have parents who went to college or were coming from low-income backgrounds. They often lacked contextual knowledge and skills that are essential for success in college,” said Tony Matamoros, director of Enrollment Services for STC’s Dual Credit Program. “Now, other colleges are looking at us. They are looking at what we are doing with our students because we have been so successful at it.”
Dual credit programs at STC collaborate with 24 school districts and 70 high schools, and are supported by more than 200 college faculty and over 300 dual credit faculty across Hidalgo and Starr counties. The program offers four options for high school students to earn college credit hours or a college credential.
Since the inception of dual credit programs in 1997, STC has served over 106,300 dual credit students and awarded over 9,800 certificates and/or associate degrees.
Dual credit courses offered at high school sites are provided at no cost to students. Since the year 2000, STC has saved families over $200 million in tuition and fees.
“What we have learned through our experience having this program is that there is a lot more outside of the classroom that needs to go on to prepare these students,” Matamoros said. “We look at the population that we’re serving, which is primarily Latino students. A lot of them are first generation students — the first in their families to ever go to college.”
More than 3,000 students have participated in the Dual Credit Fast Track Initiative since its inception in 2017. During that time, studies produced by the college have shown that students who have taken the time to enter the initiative not only had a higher academic standing compared to their peers — their GPAs were significantly higher, 3.1 on average — but they were also completing more hours that they attempted (93.3 percent).
Students entering the fast track initiative also saw significantly lower rates of withdrawal from classes — only 1.1 percent compared to non-participants.
“We are very encouraged by this because it’s one thing to go through the program, do a walkthrough and see, based on your experience, that it’s working,” Matamoros said. “But when it’s backed by data, it validates that what we are doing is truly making a difference in the success of our students. We have invested so much time working with schools and so we want to make sure that students are not only having a good experience, but they’re actually getting something out of it.”