Thursday, July 22, 2010

Education study ranks Hidalgo County near the bottom among large metro areas

Neal Morton | The Monitor
July 21, 2010

McALLEN — McAllen remains among the nation’s worst cities for educational success, a think tank reported this week, but some business and education leaders gleaned hope from the area’s third-to-last ranking for bachelor’s degree achievement.

Releasing its “State of Metropolitan America” study on Monday, the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute ranked the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission area — which comprises all of Hidalgo County — 98th among the country’s 100 largest metro areas based on the proportion of residents age 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree.

Only 15.1 percent of that age group, or 58,811 people, had a bachelor’s degree in 2008.

In 1990 and 2000, Greater McAllen stood at dead last on the list.

University of Texas-Pan American President Robert Nelsen hailed the movement up the ranking since then as good news for the area.

“We only came up by two, but my optimism is large,” Nelsen said. “Sometimes I’m asked if we need to recruit in Houston or in Dallas. No, we don’t.

“There are so many students here available,” he said. “We just need to make certain they know they have the opportunity.”

Nelsen said many hurdles stand between metro McAllen and the 35 percent national average for degree attainment.

One key factor in the area’s low education rates represented what Nelsen called a vicious circle.

“We have a lot of poverty in the (Rio Grande) Valley,” he said. “I think of lot of that is because of the low number of bachelor’s (degrees) we have here. An educated populace is what will turn around that trend.”

Demonstrating the vicious circle, the metro report illuminated tough prospects for individuals without post-secondary educations.

In 2008, less than 60 percent of residents with only a high school diploma or less had a job, compared to over 86 percent employment for residents with a bachelor’s degree.

Joe Brown, president and CEO of Border Capital Bank and board chairman of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said the low numbers of bachelor’s degrees in the area reflected a student mindset that hurts the area.

“We’ve lost some of that mental capital to other areas of the state,” Brown said. “We have a lot of our kids leaving the Valley to go to school. … They get enamored with life in the big city and we lose them.”

Brown’s own daughter received a master’s degree in Austin and has yet to return.

He said the dislocation of education-oriented students might change as more institutions of higher learning like South Texas College establish themselves in South Texas.

STC’s vice president of academic affairs, Juan Mejia, agreed.

“We are playing catch-up more than anything,” Mejia said.

“Here, our focus is to prepare a workforce for jobs that exist in our area,” he said. “We do environmental scans on what potential new jobs are coming so we can be ready to roll out a program as soon as possible.”

As their schools renovate engineering, health care and information technology programs, Mejia and Nelsen said they were coordinating efforts to provide training for jobs specific to the region.

Their optimism was supported by some increases reported in the metro study.

The McAllen area’s enrollment in college or graduate schools beat the national trend as it jumped 7.8 points from 23.5 percent of the age 18-24 population in 2000 to 31.3 percent in 2008.

Bachelor’s degree attainment among residents age 25 and older also went up — 12.9 percent in 2000 versus 15.1 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, associate degree attainment in that age group increased half a percentage point to 3.4 percent.

Even high school graduation rates for the age 25-and-up crowd increased, from 50.5 percent in 2000 to 58.3 percent in 2008.

High school was the place Nelsen saw the most potential for change in the Valley’s college-ready culture.

“You have to get these kids early on,” he said. “You have to be moving as quickly and early as you can to introduce them to the idea of college.”

He referenced a San Juan school district program that helps parents get their general equivalency diplomas and noted the community aspect to such efforts.

“If the parents get the GED, then their kids are more likely to go to college,” Nelsen said. “It has to be multi-pronged. Just the university or STC can’t do it alone. We all have to do it together.”

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