Texas-style career ed: Ties to industry and wages

Across the 11 campuses of the Texas State Technical College system, the recruiting motto proclaims: “Life is hands-on. Your education should be too.”

The reality of that was evident during a recent visit to its sprawling flagship campus in Waco, where students were creating robots, repairing hybrid cars, welding pipelines, baking fancy cakes, flying airplanes and climbing utility poles.

That goal, administrators say, is to get students ready for the workforce as quickly as possible and then be hired into well-paying jobs in the growing Texas economy.

And it is done with extra — some would say unusual, even excessive — focus on what industry needs and what pays best.

As a result, some students choose Texas State Technical College’s Waco campus — which offers about 30 majors and campus housing — even if some similar programs are offered at traditional Texas community colleges closer to their home.

For example, Ethan Hernandez, 19, said he was not interested in a traditional, academic college education and wanted to learn more about the repairs he enjoyed helping his grandfather with on family cars. Now he is pursuing a two-year associate degree in automotive technology and probably will add an extra certificate in collision repairs.

“I want to know how to do the interiors of cars as well as the exteriors of cars”, said Hernandez, who went to high school in Keller, Texas, 100 miles north of Waco. He also may apply for a separate 16-week program on the Waco campus that Tesla runs to teach electric repairs for its electric vehicles. 

Too many young people go to a four-year college to party, while their “parents waste a lot of money” on a degree that has nothing to do with future employment, Hernandez said during an interview at his Waco campus dorm. In contrast, he said, getting a certificate or degree from a school like Texas State Technical College (TCSC) “gives you a big jump” in the job market. 

The Texas technical education system — which is separate from community colleges and their wider missions — last fall enrolled 11,400 full-time students, including about 3,100 at Waco, seeking certificates or diplomas that take between one semester and two years to complete.

On the surface, that may not sound that different from the many technical and career programs offered at California’s public community colleges or other trade schools around the country. But TSTC contrasts in several crucial ways.

Some experts say that California could look to Texas for career education ideas as families and students increasingly question the long-term value and costs of a traditional four-year college diploma. 

IMG 3233 edited
The entrance to Texas State Technical College in Waco.

While higher education enrollments suffered pandemic-era drops nationally, community colleges that concentrate on vocational programs showed a 16% increase last fall.

That’s a sizable rise compared with two-year public schools that transfer students to universities — those saw an increase of less than 1%, federal statistics show.

More than anything, some experts say, TSTC’s focus almost entirely on job training and career preparation gives it a leg up and has boosted its enrollment much faster than regular community colleges since the pandemic losses.

Traditional two-year public colleges have a dual mission of both getting technical students to work, whether in medical technology or agribusiness, and to provide academic classes, such as political science, biology and music, for transfers. 

‘A lesson for California’

Of California’s 116 community colleges, the only bricks-and-mortar one thoroughly devoted to technical and career education is Los Angeles Trade-Tech college, which offers more than 80 career tracks and certificates, significantly more than TSTC.

Yet, the L.A. school, which enrolls 13,500 full- and part-time students, also has transfer programs and is part of a nine-campus district with other missions. Adult workers needing skills can turn to the state’s online Calbright College, which opened in 2019 but had a slow start and now enrolls 3,700 students. Private, for-profit schools have a big footprint as well.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is trying to bolster career and trade education and is drafting a new master plan for that type of learning. But, the Texas State Technical College’s “intentionality” gives it an advantage in job training and placement and could be “a lesson for California,” according to Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who was chancellor of the California Community Colleges system for six years until 2022 and now is president and CEO of the Oakland-based College Futures Foundation, which encourages more students to earn vocational certificates or college degrees.

At comprehensive community colleges, technical education is often at a disadvantage because “there’s a competition for resources” with traditional academics, Oakley told EdSource. Texas’ technical colleges allow “more time and attention paid to career advising, to bringing in faculty who are working in the field … and I think those students get a higher level of service.” 

TSTC students, however, risk being in “dead end programs” since there are few courses with transferable credits if they decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree, Oakley said. That may particularly hurt Black and Latino students who were not on the college-going track in high school, he added. 

Only about 6% of TSTC students complete university transfers, but school leaders emphasize that is not the mission. All TSTC academic classes — mainly in English and math — that its students take for associate degrees are online.

TSTC loudly and explicitly embraces industries. Some of that is philosophical, and some is caused by funding: For the past decade, much of TSTC’s state financing has been based on an unusual formula tied to graduates’ average job pay up to five years out. TSTC Waco has killed off programs — such as computer repair, dental hygiene, golf course maintenance — when graduates’ pay was not high enough.

TSTC has “a strong reputation for preparing students for jobs and really for being nimble and flexible in how they go about that,” explained Charlotte Cahill, an associate vice president for education at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that works to expand well-paid employment opportunities. Community colleges nationwide also start new programs and kill older ones, but TSTC is “faster than most community colleges are when it comes to that,” she said.

In another difference from many community colleges elsewhere, the Waco school offers a lot of on-campus housing. And, sharply contrasting to California, TSTC faculty are not unionized and can not receive job-protecting tenure.

“We don’t exist to serve faculty. We exist to serve Texas industry and the students who want to go to work and live lives of prosperity,” said Jonathan Hoekstra, the TSTC executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer.

“We have a talent line of production we are trying to develop for industry,” he added. We want to help students make good decisions about what are their passions, their skills and how they want to develop them and become part of a talented workforce.” 

TSTC’s smaller scale may help it concentrate on well-paid jobs in such fields as computer programming, avionics, cybersecurity, plumbing, solar energy and diesel engines. About 40% of its full-time students seeking a credential obtain one after three years, which is slightly more than at peer schools, according to Texas state statistics. 

At California community colleges, officials concede that progress and completion in career/vocational programs are much lower but attribute that to the many students who dabble by taking only one or two classes a year.

California’s system of spreading vocational training around the state is more convenient for students and also allows them to take a variety of academic courses in case they decide to transfer to a university, said Paul Feist, the California community college system’s vice chancellor for communications. The system offers many successful examples, including Chaffey College’s InTech Center (in the Inland Empire) that trains students in welding, automation and robotics and Rio Hondo in Whittier and Evergreen Valley in San Jose which both offer Tesla electric car programs similar to TSTC’s.  

An important difference is that many California students are limited to the vocational program close to their homes, since on-campus housing is rare and the cost of moving to another city for off-campus housing can be prohibitive. Only 13 of California’s 116 community colleges have housing although several more are trying to build them.

Housing magnet

In contrast, TSTC ranks high in national listings of two-year schools with housing. Four of its 11 campuses do, attracting students from around Texas and the nation. Waco has about 1,100 beds, some in a complex run by a private firm. The school requires students from outside the area to live on campus the first year. There are also 126 duplexes, renovated former Air Force barracks, catering to older students who have children. 

Amanda King, who studies cybersecurity at TSTC, says campus housing is important.

Being able to rent a two-bedroom house on campus was a benefit for Amanda King, who is 27 and a single mother of two young children. She is expecting soon to finish more than two years of study for an associate degree in cybersecurity and an extra certificate in digital forensics. 

“It’s easier for families here,” said King, who is from McGregor, about 30 miles away. “Having housing available here makes it a little bit more possible.”

Now she hopes to be hired by a police department and earn about $55,000 a year to start as a digital investigator, cracking into cellphone records and emails of criminal suspects. That grew out of her love of television mystery shows and her desire to deter bad guys.

“There is a lot of scamming going on, child predators, human trafficking. All kinds of cases and a lot of digital footprints,” she said.

Ready to work

About 20 of the 75 employees at Fallas Automation firm in Waco are TSTC graduates, mainly in robotics, according to company Vice President of Operations Daniel Maeyaert. The firm, which creates robotic equipment that packs food products, said the school does “a really good job of getting employees trained to be ready to work. That’s really their strength.” New hires from TSTC “understand the terms we are using and understand the industry.”

A new employee might start with a $60,000 annual salary with room to grow, he added.

However, while technical skills are strong, TSTC should teach more “soft skills,” such as showing up to work on time, conducting job interviews and presenting yourself in writing and speaking, Maeyaert said. “I think they need to focus on it a little bit more,” he added.

Texas State Technical College began in 1966 at the former 2,000-acre Air Force base 8 miles north of downtown Waco and across the Brazos River. Now at the outer edge of the suburbs, the school was at first part of Texas A & M university but later became independent and added locations around the state, some full campuses, some just a building.

The Waco campus still has an active air field and looks like an industrial park, so spread out it is difficult to walk between buildings. The amount of equipment, such as robots, welding machines, flight simulators, airplanes and cars, is impressive — sometimes funded by corporate donations. 

Plain and practical, it’s nothing like the ritzier Baylor University a few miles away. TSTC has no big-time sports teams, no fraternities or sororities. The on-campus recreation center includes a gym, a weight room, ping pong tables and spots to socialize, but those are relatively modest.

Yoselin Merlo, a TSTC robotics student. working with equipment at the lab.
Credit: Larry Gordon/EdSource

Tuition and fees for most TSTC students will average about $7,200 over two semesters for 2024-25 (much higher than California’s Community Colleges’ $1,200). A majority of students come from low-income families and receive substantial federal and state aid.    

About 43% of Waco’s students are Latino, 38% white, 6% Black and 1% Asian/Pacific Islanders. The vast majority are traditional college age but some students are in their 40s and 50s. Women comprise only about 10% of the students. Other TSTC campuses have higher numbers of women drawn to nursing and education studies. 

Yoselin Merlo, 19, who is among the few women studying robotics at Waco, said “it can definitely be challenging to be in a room full of guys who are thinking I don’t have the answers” and to keep proving herself. Merlo emigrated from Honduras to Houston in 2016 and became the first in her family to learn English and finish high school.

Helped with financial aid, she said that coming to TSTC Waco “was the best decision I ever made.” She plans for a career designing industrial robots, earning a strong wage to help her family and to donate school uniforms and shoes to poor kids in Honduras.

Most TSTC programs allow open enrollment with just a high school diploma or equivalency. Admission to the airplane pilot training and allied health programs are more competitive. 

Kaleb Sanders, 20, is following a family tradition of lineman studies and work. With his safety belt attached, Sanders skillfully scaled to the high top of one of the many 35-foot-high practice poles on a campus field. The lines are not electrified, but students are supposed to treat them as if they are “hot.”

Student Kaleb Sanders practicing to become a utility linemen during training at Texas State Technical College in Waco.
Credit: Larry Gordon/EdSource

Sanders has seen many classmates quit. “A lot of people come to (the lineman program) because they see the good pay, the high demand. They don’t realize there is a reason for that. It’s dangerous, it’s hard. You might not have the guts for it,” he said. Instructors say linemen can start out earning $80,000 a year with overtime and get much more with experience.

All about pay

TSTC graduates’ pay is crucial for the school’s health. Since 2013, the largest pot of state revenue relies on a so-called returned-value formula linked heavily to alumni earning levels — not to the usual enrollment. For the upcoming year, that is expected to provide about $95 million in state funds, 30% of its overall budget. Tuition payments rank next in size, at about $60 million or 19%.

The TSTC funding formula “is seen as a bellwether because of its boldness,” said a 2016 report by the Lumina Foundation. While the college’s revenues have remained solid since then, the model may not work for other colleges with broader missions, one of that report’s co-authors recently told EdSource. 

It would be politically difficult to abandon older departments and fire tenured faculty to “chase the new hot major and industry,” said Martin Van Der Werf, who is director of education policy and partnerships at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And it would be hard to evaluate future earnings for community college graduates if they transfer to earn bachelor’s degrees, he added.

While Texas and California reforms now factor in some outcomes — such as degree completions, job placements and wages — in calculating the state revenue community colleges receive, California still relies mostly on enrollment.

TSTC’s strong emphasis on graduates’ pay “definitely helped drive expanded opportunities for students. And it’s also created powerful incentives for TSTC to focus their programs,” said Harrison Keller, who is commissioner of higher education and CEO of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a state agency. TSTC competes with regular community colleges in Texas in some majors, but TSTC’s is “more readily positioned to provide opportunities for folks to reskill and upskill than many of the community colleges,” Keller added.

TSTC system enrollment declined slightly in the pandemic but now surpasses pre-Covid levels, while many Texas community colleges struggle with continuing enrollment drops. 

Despite TSTC’s increased state funding, some faculty complain that there are shortages in instructors because pay is not enough to attract technical experts from industry who want to move to Waco. Students are divided on TSTC’s recent shift in some majors to what is called performance-based education, in which students can proceed at their own pace, mastering skill by skill. Some think it is great, but others contend there is too much reliance on online material and not enough team spirit. 

Automotive technology student Martin Henges said he wasn’t sure of a career path after high school but was interested in cars. Now, he is finishing his associate degree and realizes that “being a mechanic is not the life I wanted.”

So instead, the 20-year-old from the Austin area is taking a rare path among TSTC grads: transferring to a University of Texas campus to study engineering for a career in the auto field.

IMG 3341
Martin Henges, an auto technology students at Texas State Technical College in Waco, works on a car battery.
Credit: Larry Gordon/EdSource

Henges said that he got a solid education at TSTC and described it as a “good school,” although the performance-based format “definitely has its ups and downs.”

It might not suit students who need fixed dates for assignments and constant interaction with teachers. “It’s almost like teaching yourself,” he said. Still, he added, students can always ask instructors for help. 

In what can be viewed as a sign of confidence or a marketing stunt, TSTC offers a money-back guarantee in nine majors — including precision machining, heavy truck diesel equipment, robotics and welding — if a student does not find a job in that field within six months of graduation. So far, no one has asked for that refund, officials said.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top