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Grant offers $1.5 million to students in Dallas early college high school programs

IMG_0776 (2).JPG Head shot of smiling African American woman, wearing glasses, nose ring and UNT, Dallas shirt.
Bill Zeeble
/
KERA News
Virgie Toliver's got her first two years of college credit thanks to attending Dallas ISD's Lincoln High School and its Early College High School program. At least 65,000 Texas students take advantage of similar programs statewide.

Thousands of Texas students take early college high school classes that can get them halfway to a bachelor's degree while still in high school, and for free. But too many fail to finish.

Nineteen-year-old Virgie Toliver’s a junior at the University of North Texas at Dallas, thanks to a couple years of college credits earned while attending Lincoln High School. Lincoln’s one of many local schools where bright kids can take free college courses — or gain certifications — by the time they finish high school.

Toliver liked the Early College High School plan, signed up, and gained an unexpected education along the way.

“Teachers are very different,” Tolivar said. “You had to be more independent for yourself to get your assignments in and pass that class.”

The big takeaway?

“They treated you like an adult.”

So Toliver did some growing up. She’d moved to North Texas from an Arkansas school with no early college program. With dreams of a job in law enforcement, she eagerly dove into college course work.

But COVID-19 soon left her floundering. In 11th grade, in the middle of the early college program, she gave up.

“I'm not an online learner,” Toliver said. “I was real down. I didn't want to do it. I told my parents I was like, ‘I don't want do this anymore.’ And they were questioning me like, ‘why?’”

At least 65,000 Texas students take advantage of similar early college programs statewide. But setbacks like Tollivar’s can be common

That’s where a new $1.5 million grant might help. Beginning next year, 40 UNT Dallas early college high school students can apply for $4,000 scholarships from the Greater Texas Foundation. The multi-year program is designed to help them finish that bachelor’s degree.

ECHS programs, which were created in the 1960s at Bard College, have been touted as a way to help students from lower-income families attend college. Thanks to grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ECHS programs began spreading nationwide beginning in 2002.

But even though research shows more ECHS students get a bachelor’s degree than similar students not in the program, those numbers could be better.

Texas education nonprofit The Commit Partnership reports 17% of Dallas County ECHS graduates obtained bachelor’s degrees. Statewide, 16% of Texas ECHS graduates obtained bachelor’s degrees by 2019 — the most recent data available.

UNT Dallas President Bob Mong says 31% of his students obtain a bachelor’s degree in four years, and 45% take six years. Those numbers include students from ECHS programs.

Many UNT Dallas students are what Mong calls “high need," which can include lower-than-expected college entrance scores, growing up in a non-English-speaking home, and often, low-income.

"85% of our graduates are high need," Mong said. "That is among the highest in the state of Texas."

UNT Dallas’ Lisa Hobson, assistant to the president, has seen too many college-capable kids fail to finish that degree.

“Some kids take what they're calling a gap year and it turns into a gap five years and a gap decade and a gap lifetime where they never return to school,” she said.

That irks Hobson, who knows college degrees five, 10 or more years down the road statistically lead to higher incomes. She also said many UNT Dallas students don’t know anyone else — including family members — even in college.

“College attendance can be so far away from kids,” Hobson said. “Some kids legitimately think ‘I have a (better) opportunity to be bit by a spider and I could be Spider-Man’ than completing a degree.”

Virgie Toliver, who was adopted six years ago, wants to be the first in her family to complete a college degree.

"My previous people, they didn't care about that type of stuff,” Toliver said, referring to her birth parents’ view of a college education. "My adoptive parents now, they still aren't graduated. They have some college background, but they have not graduated.”

Toliver plans to apply for the ECHS scholarship. Even though the teen said she had lost faith in her smarts when COVID forced online learning, her adoptive-parents did not.

And the support she got from her adoptive parents and from some UNT Dallas faculty paid off: Toliver was the valedictorian of her Lincoln High School class.

“They were like, this is what you want to do? We're going to push you,” recalled Toliver. “And they helped me. A lot. I feel like it's a support system issue as well. Like no parents, which - you don't need parents - you need a support system.”

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.