Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash

After following Texas eighth-graders for twelve years after their high school graduation, the Houston Education Research Consortium found that 29 percent of Texas graduates get post-secondary degrees.

After tracking more than 267,000 Texas eighth-graders for 12 years after their anticipated high school graduation date, the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research found that 29 percent of those graduates received post-secondary degrees during that timeframe.

This 29 percent is far from where Texas leaders want the state to be. In 2015, the state implemented 60x30, an initiative with the goal of at least 60 percent of the state's 25- to 30-year-olds holding a career certificate or degree by 2030.

In 2012, Houston Endowment funded a similar study following students six years after their high school graduation and found that one in five students earned a post-secondary degree during that time. Now, the latest study from HERC, which is also funded by Houston Endowment, found similar results using data from the Texas Education Agency, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and Texas Workforce Commission, but the percentage of post-secondary completion increased from 21 percent to 29 percent after expanding the tracking period to 12 years post-high school graduation.

HERC researchers explain that the increase from 21 percent to 29 percent is likely due to the extension from 6 to 12 years post high school graduation. "College completion statistics are often calculated with traditional students in mind—students who enter college right after high school, attend full-time, and complete without stopping out or dropping out. However, the data show that this behavior may not be so traditional. Students may have responsibilities outside school that disrupt their education. Others may decide to pursue an education after encountering challenges in the labor market," Brian Holzman, a research scientist at HERC, notes.

"The general idea is to track a specific cohort and identify the leak in the education pipeline - when they are at risk, what the educational outcome looks like, and who dropped out of a school system,” said Jie Wu, director of research management at the Kinder Institute. “And what percentage of the students in the public school system ended up with having a post-secondary degree? Schools report the dropout rate, but what happens after high school?” Wu explained.

"This has implications for how high schools are thinking about college readiness. A lot of kids are enrolling later or taking longer to complete," said Holzman. "I think policymakers and practitioners need to understand the different patterns of enrollment and completion that there are for students."

The researchers note that the statistics reported on the website may look different for future cohorts. Holzman said, "The state and school districts have increased their focus on college enrollment and completion in recent years. For instance, the Houston Independent School District has implemented innovative college counseling programs like EMERGE and LAUNCH. Because of these efforts, post-secondary educational opportunities for future cohorts may be much more promising."

Ruth López Turley, Rice University sociology professor and director of HERC, is hoping the findings from the study inform policymakers prioritizing funding to reach the 60x30 goal.

The release of the study comes at a time when the return on investment for college degrees is increasingly debated as tuition rates and student debt are steadily rising. "I'm not saying college is a waste of time and money for everyone,” Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork, wrote for CNBC. “But if there's one takeaway, it's this: The future of work won't be about degrees. More and more, it'll be about skills."

“Education doesn't stop,” he added. “It's a lifelong process. Diploma or not, it's a mindset worth embracing."

Though, past predictions and current models of job requirements point to the necessities of higher education.

According to a recent poll, Texans grasp the concept of continuous learning throughout their careers, but the cost of college tuition remains a concern.

"When districts think about college and career readiness, they should not only think about raising the bar, but also leveling the playing field," Holzman said, pointing to the understanding that some students may need additional financial, emotional, and social support, and that different districts may need different strategies.

Following this study, Holzman is working on two additional reports involving college readiness and labor market outcomes for Houston-area students. Additionally, a graduate student affiliated with HERC is working on a simulation of what the education and workforce distribution would look like if Texas had free tuition for community college.

"We're trying to triangulate a lot of different areas to get at this broader question of education attainment in Texas," Holzman said. "I'm hoping that some of these efforts, this website, and future reports, will be useful to districts in their achieving goals."

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