Collaborations for Success
Since 2011, Greater Texas Foundation (GTF) has made a multi-million-dollar investment in the state’s first scholarship program designed specifically for the growing number of Early College High School (ECHS) graduates in Texas. Program evaluators Barbara Goldberg and Kim Stezala reflect on the many partnerships that have made the GTF Scholars program effective.

The GTF Scholars program was created to increase the number of Texas ECHS graduates who successfully transition to and complete a baccalaureate degree. The GTF Scholars Program focuses on degree completion by combining a two- or three-year need-based scholarship with academic planning and social support. Part of the funding supports a program coordinator on each campus to manage student activities, provide individual guidance, make referrals to campus resources and participate in the evaluation. Overall, 65-70% of GTF Scholars, depending on the cohort, are first-generation college students, and the non-financial support is essential to the program’s success.

ECHS students enter and matriculate at the university level differently than traditional high school students because of the number and type of credits they have already earned at their ECHS. Although GTF Scholars may be only 18 or 19 years old, they are placed in upper level courses; it is anticipated that they’ll finish their degrees within two to three years of entering the program.

The program initially included four institutions: Texas A&M University, University of Houston, University of North Texas, and The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. After successful implementation and proof of impact with the initial grantees, the foundation expanded the program in 2017 to reach 1,000 more students through 2026. The GTF Scholars 2.0 institutions are Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, University of Houston Downtown, University of North Texas, The University of Texas at El Paso, The University of Texas of the Permian Basin, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and The University of Texas at Tyler.

The foundation partnered with Barbara Goldberg of Barbara Goldberg & Associates, LLC and Kim Stezala of Design Group International, Inc. to conduct a robust evaluation since the beginning of the program. The partnership is further enhanced by an agreement with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to analyze comparison group data.

Early results indicate positive social outcomes for students, significantly higher levels of degree completion, and reduced student loan debt, among other findings. The evaluation team’s role expanded and evolved with the program and now includes technical assistance to the grantees and collaboration with all partners to build a trustful learning community and to disseminate what they have learned.

One of the great strengths of the program model is the foundation’s commitment to being a “learning organization,” an organization that “seeks to create its own future, that assumes learning is an ongoing and creative process for its members, and one that develops, adopts, and transforms itself in respond to the needs and aspirations of people both inside and outside itself.” (Source: Navran Associates Newsletter, 1993). One key way in which the foundation is a learning organization regarding its GTF Scholars program is through the creation of a “community of learning” that brings the voice of students, universities, and others together in both formal and informal ways. In the words of one GTF Scholars program coordinator, “The more we can bring the schools together to really develop the community of learning, I think it is really fantastic. …Keeping the lines of communication open between the participating institutions is really key.”

Broad collaboration was built into the program design and is paramount to the program’s success at a student, institutional, and program-wide level. Examples of this unique approach include:

  • Collaboration between the foundation and the grantee institutions; between the Principal Investigator (PI), Program Coordinator and other personnel on campus; between the foundation, evaluation team, grantees and students; and the partnerships and outreach between grantees and the ECHS community.

  • Formal and informal interaction and collaboration through annual study groups, PI interviews, webinars, site visits to grantees by the foundation staff and, separately, by the evaluators. Continuing grantees are playing an active role in assisting the new grantees with planning and implementation.

  • Students as partners in the evaluation. From the beginning of the program, at least 95% of GTF Scholars have consented to participate in evaluation activities such as focus groups and surveys, with their feedback being incorporated into program changes and improvements. This student voice is an important aspect of continuous learning for the foundation and grantees.

  • Dissemination of learnings among grantees and to the larger academic and non-academic community. The foundation, with assistance from grantees and the evaluation team, is sharing its lessons learned, program design and best practices derived from the GTF Scholars Program.

Neither foundation staff nor the evaluators are aware of such a large-scale, long-term program design targeting ECHS graduates, whether in Texas or elsewhere in the country. The scope of both the program design and the accompanying evaluation offers the potential for positive, measurable impact on participating students and institutions, as well as on the scholarship field.

Victor Acosta
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
Civil Engineering, Class of 2018
ECHS: Brownsville Early College High School

Why did you choose to attend an early college high school?
I moved to Brownsville from Mexico with my mom and sisters when I was in the sixth grade. It was a different system and a different culture for me. I did not know the language—just enough to have an idea of what people were saying. My sisters and I went to ESL [English as a Second Language] classes, and my sister’s eighth-grade ESL teacher recommended that she try this new program, Brownsville Early College High School. My sister was the first one to go there, and she told me about her experience. When it was my turn to go to high school, I knew my family was not financially stable, and college was eventually going to get here—so I went for it.

Why is a college education important to you?
For me, going to college was me thinking about how much my parents did for me to be here. My mom brought us to the U.S. for our education while my dad stayed behind in Mexico and worked to support us, which means they sacrificed parts of their marriage and finances. In the end, I just want to pay back my parents. They made an investment in me, and I just want to pay them back.

What are some challenges and successes you’ve had in college so far?
High school taught me how to handle myself in classes, but it didn’t teach me about the other things you need to do to succeed in college. For example, no one said, “Join an organization on campus to build your resume.” When I started talking to people my age at UTRGV and they asked what I did, I had nothing. So, in my second year I joined a civil engineering club. That is where things started happening like a chain reaction. I went with the club to a competition in El Paso, and that was one of the best experiences of my life because my family had never traveled. At the same time, a professor invited me to do research with her, and I loved it. After that, Michael [Aldape, UTRGV Scholars Program Coordinator] helped me find funding to study abroad, and I got a scholarship to attend a civil engineering conference in California. I'll be starting an internship with Braun Intertec soon.

How has being a GTF Scholar impacted your college experience?
GTF Scholars requires you to do certain things to keep your scholarship. For example, you have to attend a certain number of events to network, hear motivational speakers, and learn about opportunities and services the university offers. You are forced to go at first, but then you start to want to go because you know all of these are going to benefit you in the end. It also helped to have upperclassmen as mentors. My mentor had taken some of the same math classes I had to take. He helped recommend professors, and that was the best thing he could have done for me. My advisor also proved himself to be a great listener, always had great advice during difficult circumstances, and was always willing to help me out.

What do you see yourself doing after college?
I’d always planned on going straight to work after my bachelor’s because I can’t afford further education. But through my internship I met a senior whose professor offered to pay for his master’s program, so that option might be available if I do really well in my internship. I will also start looking for scholarships so I can pursue my master’s degree.

Kayla DeAnda
University of North Texas
Biochemistry, Class of 2020
ECHS: Texas Academy of Biomedical Sciences (TABS)

Why did you choose to attend an early college high school?
When my parents had me, my mom was really young, and my parents struggled to afford food and diapers. My parents always told me that if you want to be somebody in life, you have to have education. I decided to go to an ECHS because I wanted to go into the medical field, and I knew that TABS would allow me to start taking college classes at an early age. I would get experience so that when I did go to a four-year university, I would already be prepared in my study habits and mentality.

Why is a college education important to you?
My parents have their own company, and neither of my parents has a degree. I know you don’t necessarily have to have a college education to have a job, but to be a CEO or move up, you do need a college education. I also feel that it is important because when you go to class with different people, you get to learn how different people grew up, where they came from, how they were educated, and what they want to do with their life. It helps you take a step back and think, “This is what I want to do with my life,” and set a goal for yourself.

What are some challenges and successes you’ve had in college so far?
I went to an ECHS with 84 students in my graduating class, so it was easy to connect. Now that I am at UNT, it is harder to reach out to people I don’t know. I consider myself an introvert, so in the first semester I found it helpful to study by myself. But when I did struggle, I didn’t have any extra resources because I hadn’t put myself out there very much. Another challenge was study habits. I used to be able to study the day before a test, but when I applied that to my first semester, it didn’t work at all. I found I needed to study for two weekends to get a good grade. In my first semester, I questioned things and thought, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this?” But now I’m like, “I am here for my education, and I want to do this. I want to be someone in life”—and I get up, and I’m ready to go.

How has being a GTF Scholar impacted your college experience?
I really don’t like to socialize a lot, so going to the workshops for GTF Scholars helped me get out there. Also, when I first got into this program I wanted to learn how to put my thoughts and what I accomplish into words so I can share it with other people. I want to sit down with other students, have a conversation about the mindset that will allow them to do well in school, and say, “You can do it!” I want to help and encourage others. I think the GTF Scholars program, especially the leadership conference, has shown me how to take the next step to be able to do that.

What do you see yourself doing after college?
I plan to go to medical school and study either sports medicine or forensic pathology.