This story was originally published by TribTalk, written by Kim Alexander on October 9, 2018. The story can be found here. Photo by Tiffany Szerpicki.

Today’s Texas economy is doing great—and education, well, not so much.

In 2017, the economy of Texas was the second-largest in the U.S. and ranked first for current economic climate thanks to strong employment.

Strong economies—from the rolling plains to the high-rises—depend on a qualified workforce.

Society has developed, adopted and scaled an incredible range of technological innovation that has transformed our world. However, economists predict that continuing advances in technology will reward education and the skills necessary to maintain steady employment.

Selecting from among more than 28,000 U.S. public high schools and 1,044 Texas school districts, U.S. News & World Report included 601 Texas schools in the 2018 Best High School rankings. Of those 601 Texas schools, 62 percent earned a bronze rating, 26 percent were awarded silver, while 12 percent achieved gold!

But national school rankings, like national football rankings, can bring false reassurance.

Within a dozen years, the Texas labor force will need 60 percent of all 25- to 34-year-olds — almost 2 million — to hold industry-recognized certificates and college degrees. Today, only 34 percent of this group is so equipped, and technology will be replacing one-fifth of the low-skilled workers.

Lagging education and skill levels have a negative impact even with innovations in technology and increased business investments. Whether it is correlation or causation, employment rates, higher earnings and overall well-being are associated with college education. We want this for our children… and their children… all children in Texas.

So, what’s the solution?

Much of tomorrow’s workforce must include prepared Hispanic (the majority among the state’s school-age children) and first-generation college students — and from the untapped potential of 700 Texas rural schools.

Trends show that over the past two decades, rural Texans have fallen behind in income, assets and health care. Rural students are less likely to have postsecondary degrees or industry-recognized certificates. However, that can be improved with better access to broadband Internet, online certifications and distributed college degree programs.

It won’t be easy! Many first-generation college students have restricted mobility, low expectations and weak academic preparation—compounded by grinding generational poverty. Early practices like providing structured support systems, fostering higher aspirations, offering early college high school and rewarding “grit” can help overcome these disadvantages.

As a small rural school, Roscoe Collegiate ISD began in 2006 to address these emerging issues by increasing access and preparation from pre-K through postsecondary education and by encouraging persistence and degree completion by rural students. The curriculum highlights a collaborative, sustainable and replicable model through postsecondary preparation, access, persistence and degree completion.

It is working. Over the past decade, the model has integrated STEM project-based learning, dual credit college courses, and student-centered research, culminating with 90 percent of the graduating seniors earning postsecondary degrees and industry-recognized certificates. And they are doing it from their home community while incurring little to no debt.

If schools, colleges and policymakers fail to consider the risks and opportunities ahead, they will fail to engage a large pool of potential students who will—skilled or unskilled—become Texas’ workforce. Such a failure would prolong inequality, reduce lifetime earnings and short-circuit the economy.

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