Across the nation, colleges such as El Paso Community College are pushing flexible class schedules and other initiatives such as pinpointed degree plans in an effort to increase graduation and certification rates.

That strategy appears to be working.

A study released by Complete College America in December 2022 showed that two-year institutions in Texas almost doubled their completion rates from 2015 to 2020. Researchers believe student-centered initiatives helped colleges achieve a 13% graduation rate, up from 7% during that time period. The national completion rate – three years for a community college degree and six years for a university degree – rose an average of 6% during the research period.

At EPCC, the completion rate increase was smaller than the state average, but still positive. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 24.1% of full-time students and 10.3% of part-time students earned their degrees from EPCC in 2021 compared to 22% and 7.7%, respectively, in 2019. 

Jasmine Rico Maldonado, a second-year microbiology student at El Paso Community College, said she appreciated EPCC advisers who helped her navigate her class schedule. She plans to transfer this summer to the University of Texas at El Paso, earn her bachelor’s  in microbiology, find a job in cancer research and pursue a graduate degree.

“My advisers made things so much easier,” she said. “They always were there to guide me.”

Maldonado, a native of Santa Maria, California, grew up with her farmworker father and spent summers picking strawberries to earn money for her family. After graduation, she married an Army combat medic stationed at Fort Bliss, a military post in El Paso.

The first-generation college student started at EPCC in fall 2021 and quickly became involved in biomedical research focused on bacteria from the Rio Grande. In mid-2022, she gave birth to a son.

“It is important for me to graduate because of my background,” said Maldonado, 22, whose son is now 6 months old. “I want to make a difference.”

Students change classes at El Paso Community College’s Valle Verde campus on Oct. 26. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Carlos Amaya, vice president of EPCC’s Student and Enrollment Services, said that in 2015 the college started to introduce several large reforms focused on customer service to make the recruitment, enrollment and advisement process more understandable to the students and their families.

He stressed that the college, which enrolled 24,203 students in fall 2022, works to make students feel welcome throughout its five campuses because high comfort levels often translate to better student outcomes.  

Amaya said the college monitors the academic progress of freshmen so advisers can help when necessary, and spikes in course enrollment so officials can decide if additional sections should be offered. He also mentioned that 67% of the faculty are Latino first-generation college students who can relate to issues faced by EPCC students.

The college has developed new degree and program options based on industry demand to encourage recruitment, retention and completion, said Steven E. Smith, EPCC vice president of Instruction and Workforce Education. It recently launched a degree in echocardiography (ultrasound of the heart), and plans to implement a year-long Patient Care Technician program that will produce graduates for high-demand health care fields.

Smith said the college also has started to use a Competency Based Education model where students can test-out of required coursework based on their knowledge and competency. The model is largely self-paced. Amaya added that the college continues to review programs to see where it can reduce the number of credit hours to degree or credential completion.

EPCC’s efforts align with those promoted through Texas Pathways, which are designed and managed by the Texas Success Center (TSC), a part of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, a nongovernmental agency that serves the state’s 50 public community college districts.

The pathways strategy, developed in 2016, helps colleges to evaluate, align and integrate their work to increase student success, said Kristina Flores, TSC director of research and evaluation. The approach involves four pillars: map the students’ path to an end goal, help students choose and enter a path, keep the students on their path, and ensure the students are learning.  

Flores said in an emailed statement that colleges in the system have committed to the Texas Pathways, which help students earn meaningful credentials that will lead to high-valued jobs or to transfer to universities with no loss of credits. She said this strategy has led to higher completion rates, and that benefits students and the state.

“Community colleges play an important role in preparing Texans to earn credentials that lead to careers that can support themselves and their families,” Flores said.

Charles Ansell, CCA vice president of research and policy and the lead author of “Building on Completion Gains: Amplifying Progress and Closing Persistent Gaps,” said that part of the reason behind the improved completion rates was that academic institutions shared information on best practices to make higher education more efficient, economical, and worthwhile. He called Texas a strong partner in this endeavor and lauded the state’s efforts to make higher education more affordable, particularly at the community college level.

A campus map at El Paso Community College’s Valle Verde campus. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Ansell stressed the importance of completion rates because degrees and credentials give graduates financial mobility, and provide communities with a larger, better educated workforce to attract and sustain high-impact industries.

The CCA official mentioned the Lone Star College (LSC) System in Houston as another example of a district that has grown its graduation numbers. The system, which has more than 85,000 students at eight campuses, had an overall completion rate of 93.1% in 2022, compared to 85.5% seven years earlier, according to Bill Van Rysdam, LSC director of media relations and communications.

Van Rysdam said in an email that the LSC system implemented numerous initiatives in line with CCA and TSC strategies to include a proposal to improve online gateway courses in math, English and first-year experiences.

Ansell said the overall reforms also benefit the approximately 4 million Texans who have some college credits but no degree. He said colleges must be attentive to the needs of underrepresented students such as Latinos and nontraditional students like those age 25 and older who often balance their academics with work and multigenerational family obligations.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus. He has written on military and higher education issues in El Paso for more than 30 years.