Poverty, like the pull of home and family, runs deep along the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, where lush farmlands hug the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet an innovative college program is making an engineering degree more affordable and accessible in this region, as the state looks to increase the number of professionals in this field.
In predominately Latino Cameron County, home to the port city of Brownsville and to Texas Southmost College, more than 1 in 3 of all residents live in poverty, says Lily Tercero, the community college’s president. College tuition is out of reach for many.
Now under a new partnership called the Texas Southmost-Texas A&M-Chevron Engineering Academy, qualified students from the area are admitted to the Texas A&M Dwight Look College of Engineering, but they complete their first two years locally at Texas Southmost and then go to Texas A&M in College Station to finish their engineering degree. During the first two years at Southmost, the courses are being taught by engineering faculty from Texas A&M.
Houston Community College, Alamo Colleges in San Antonio and El Centro College in Dallas are also partnering with Texas A&M in this program, which is supported by a $5 million gift from Chevron.
The partnership hopes to attract minority students, a goal Chevron says is in line with its need for a more diverse workforce. At Texas Southmost, about 95 percent of the community college's roughly 4,500 students are Hispanic, Tercero said.
The engineering degree partnership saves students money - as much as $14,000 in tuition for those who remain in the program for the full two years, according to A&M.
Apart from the savings, allowing students to stay close to home for the first two years of their degree is no small thing for Latino families, particularly for those who’ve never had a family member go to college and who might view with skepticism the idea of their children leaving home to pursue an education.
Tercero, a Latina who at the age of 9 began helping her family run a small store in the tiny West Texas outpost of Balmorhea, knows a thing or two about struggling to make ends meet. At her urging, in 2013 Texas Southmost’s board did something normally unheard of - it reduced tuition by 37 percent.
“We needed to reduce our costs to students so that we could expand opportunities and access to students,” Tercero told NBC News.
The new partnership with Texas A&M builds on this mission to make the dream of a higher education - and its subsequent opportunities for a career and a middle-class life - closer to a reality for many of the area's youth.
“This program is going to open the doors for our students who are interested in pursuing an engineering degree, and it’s going to reduce their costs to completion,” said Tercero said at an event announcing the partnership. “It’s going to increase their ability to do it quickly and they’ll be ready to go into the workforce once they graduate from this prestigious university.”
Texas A&M University ranked fourth among the top 25 institutions awarding Bachelor degrees to Latinos in science, technology, engineering and math fields in 2013, according to Excelencia in Education. A university spokesman said about 20 percent of its engineering students are Latino.
Though demand is high for positions in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Latinos are highly underrepresented in the pursuit of degrees and certificates necessary for those jobs. A report last month by Excelencia in Education found more Latinos are graduating with postsecondary degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but only 9 percent of STEM degrees and certificates went to Latinos in 2013.
A 2012 report by the President’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology projected that 1 million more STEM degrees would be needed in the next decade. The projected need for engineers in the Texas workforce alone is 62,000 by 2022.
“Texas has a significant need for more engineers and has an abundance of capable students. This new academy program provides a unique pathway toward earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering,” John Sharp, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, said in a statement.
Tercero said research clearly shows there is a high demand for STEM jobs.
“We thought, ‘Why not our students from Texas Southmost College,’” Tercero told NBC.