National Contest Promotes Teamwork, Degree Completion

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

The message of a national “contest” where 57 communities including El Paso are working to increase the number of adult residents with post-secondary degrees is simple: “You learn. You earn. And everyone wins.”

Research shows that college degrees lead to more per capita income, according to organizers of the three-year Talent Dividend competition. They estimate that a 1 percent increase in adults with four-year degrees in the nation’s top 51 metro areas would mean an estimated $143 billion increase per year for the nation.Noël Harmon, Ph.D., is national director and chief program officer of Talent Dividend, a competition to increase degree completion that comes with a $1 million prize. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceNoël Harmon, Ph.D., is national director and chief program officer of Talent Dividend, a competition to increase degree completion that comes with a $1 million prize. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

At the end of the competition, the city that experiences the greatest increase in the number of college degrees granted per 1,000 residents during a four-year period will earn a $1 million prize.

The challenge is one of three programs started by CEOs for Cities, a Chicago-based civic innovation lab that promotes collaboration among community leaders to improve their regions. Other ongoing contests involve environmental initiatives and methods to reduce poverty. The final data will be collected this summer and the winners will be announced in September 2014.

The University of Texas at El Paso has taken a leadership role among the El Paso team that includes many of the same educators, business leaders, elected officials, and community advocates who are instrumental in the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a group formed by UTEP more than 20 years ago to enhance the academic capacity of Paso del Norte region residents. This partnership also was instrumental in attracting the attention of Boston-based Opportunity Nation, a multipronged effort started in 2012 to create a cohesive plan for the area’s economic development and social mobility.

Talent Dividend and Opportunity Nation recognize that educational attainment is a key factor that drives regional economies, said Howard Daudistel, Ph.D., UTEP’s senior executive vice president who is overseeing the progress of El Paso’s Talent Dividend team.

“No one can do it alone,” Daudistel said. “Everyone needs to collaborate to push that agenda, and we’re all aligned.”

As a result, El Paso is far ahead of other communities in terms of promoting K-16 education. He said the University has spent years building a culture of college throughout the region and those efforts are paying dividends. He said the University has experienced a 99 percent increase in degrees awarded since 2002 in part because UTEP continues to look for different ways to enhance student opportunities as part of its access and excellence mission.

The growing success of the El Paso plan is among the reasons that Opportunity Nation and Talent Dividend wanted UTEP involved, and why Washington Monthly magazine in 2012 rated UTEP as among the best universities in the country based on research, social mobility and community service.

The University could serve as a model for other Talent Dividend communities that need help getting started, said Noël Harmon, Ph.D., national director of the Talent Dividend and chief program officer at CEOs for Cities. She lauded UTEP for its ongoing efforts to develop new ways to address the changing needs of the region’s students during a recent visit to the campus, where she received an update on the community’s progress.

“UTEP keeps an open mind in its efforts to affect change,” Harmon said. “It’s a glowing example of collaborating within your community, looking for new ways to tap into opportunities that will help support the community.”

A recent example is a collaboration between UTEP and Mountain View High School, which was identified as an area school that did not send a lot of its students to four-year universities. A UTEP team led by Donna Ekal, Ph.D., associate provost for undergraduate studies, began to meet with the school’s faculty, staff and students in fall 2011 to build a relationship. Ekal and others talked with students about study habits, time management skills, college applications and scholarship opportunities. The interaction paid off as the number of Mountain View graduates who enrolled at UTEP doubled to 52 from 26 within a year.

“Our message was, ‘We want you to come to UTEP,’” said Ekal, who was asked to join the Clint Independent School District’s executive council. Administrators from high schools throughout the district began to share the same message with their students. “The people factor was key.”

Elizabeth Pasillas, Mountain View’s college and career counselor, said many students told her how much they appreciated UTEP’s attention, including securing buses to ferry them to and from UTEP’s Orange and Blue Day open house events that showed them what the University offered and ways to pay for it.

“The whole experience was very positive,” said Pasillas, who earned her bachelor’s in nursing from UTEP in 2001. “The strategies have encouraged our students and we’re building on that.”

Ekal also pointed to UTEP’s leadership in a multi-university effort to help active-duty military, veterans (an estimated 47,000 in El Paso County), and their families to earn a degree. The University, which is located near Fort Bliss, an Army post with more than 80,000 military and affiliated family members, has set up an education office at the post and studied the top nine Army installations where Bliss troops go to or come from and created a network with public colleges and universities that serve those communities in Kansas, Georgia, Virginia, and Oklahoma. The goal is to make transferring credits as easy as possible for military-affiliated students. She planned to discuss specific issues with her counterparts in February during a military education conference in San Diego.

She also pointed to the collaboration between UTEP, El Paso Community College and the six school districts that have Early College High Schools, institutions where students earn high school diplomas and associate degrees at the same time. Many graduates then transfer to four-year institutions.

Daudistel said these programs and others like them often generate interest from representatives from other communities at Talent Dividend meetings.

“It seems a lot of people know what El Paso has been doing in terms of collaboration,” he said. “It’s a verification and validation of what we’re doing.”

While it would be great to win the $1 million Talent Dividend prize, Daudistel and Harmon agree that most participating communities see this as an opportunity to build the kinds of collaborations that will create sustainable academic and economic progress.