A new UTEP graduate celebrates at the spring 2019 commencement ceremony. (Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso)

For almost 30 years, El Paso has not had a dedicated reporter to the topic of higher education. This means there has been an accumulating gray area as to what higher education means for El Pasoans and the local community.

And that’s where I come in. I’m Jewél, a newbie to the El Paso area who is dedicated to digging up and highlighting the stories and issues that haven’t been told. As a recent college graduate myself (Go Orange!), I deeply understand the perspective of students and the importance of higher education.

For the past two weeks I have been giving myself a crash course on the educational scene in El Paso and the state of Texas, while also attempting to answer a simple but complex question: what does higher education look like in El Paso? Here are some of my major findings so far.

El Paso lags the state in college attainment rates

In comparison to the rest of Texas, El Paso lags in getting its high school and college students graduated.

According to Census Bureau data collected from 2015 through 2019, 78.5% of El Pasoans over 25 had a high school diploma and 23.3% had received a bachelor’s degree or higher. Statewide, 83.7% of adults over 25 were high school graduates and 29.9% had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Texas has lower high school and college graduation rates than the nation. To address that, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2015 launched its 60×30 plan — a statewide initiative to ensure that 60% of Texans between ages of 25–34 would receive a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2030. And according to a 2019 progress report, Hispanics are improving the most compared to other target groups like African-Americans.

For most El Paso students, the University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College are the primary options for higher education. But despite UTEP’s 100% admission rate, only 50% of students are graduating and only 22% of students are graduating at EPCC within eight years.

Incomes aren’t increasing, making education harder to afford

Affordability is an ongoing issue with higher education. For El Paso, this conversation is especially important as median household incomes have slowly increased but generally remain well behind the state of Texas and the rest of the nation.

According to Census Bureau data of 2015–2019, the median household income for an El Pasoan family is $46,871 while the median for the state is $61,874. In 2010–2014 data, the median El Paso income was $44,085, meaning that El Paso has only seen a 6% increase in recent years.

Despite lower school costs from UTEP and EPCC in comparison to private institutions, many El Paso students and graduates still incur student debt. For graduated students at EPCC, debt can range anywhere from $5,000 to $9,000. For graduated students at UTEP, debt can range anywhere from $13,000 to $25,000.

From 2004 to 2019, a study found that the state of Texas has seen a 57% increase in student debt. Nationally, student debt has increased tremendously since 2004 but in recent years there has been a pause on debts increasing. This may be a result of grant aid relief and economic developments. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, financial hardships have continued to be exacerbated for many.

A college degree often means a ticket out of town

One of the biggest challenges I keep hearing about is an economic one. El Pasoans who earn a college degree often leave town for places like Dallas and Houston in order to find work and typically don’t return to El Paso. And the reason for that: there aren’t enough jobs here for people with bachelor’s degrees.

The El Paso job market is concentrated with blue collar industries and low-paying jobs, which leaves few job opportunities that require four-year degrees outside of education and health care. For recent college graduates with potential student debt to pay off once graduating, this presents a challenge that is often remedied by leaving El Paso.

In order to keep the graduates that El Paso produces, the job markets have to expand and diversify. Not only would this help to benefit El Paso graduates, but it would also help to attract outside workers and help El Paso compete in the state and global economy.

Let me know your thoughts

I’ve been talking with a lot of people since I started this job at the beginning of the month. Among the Zoom chats and phone calls, I keep thinking about what a UTEP student told me — “no matter the challenge, El Pasoans are going to find a way.” And she was right. Resiliency, I quickly have learned, is within the people of El Paso and their life experiences.

For our reporting to be as expansive as possible, we have to hear from you. Is there an important issue or topic that I need to know about? Anything that needs to be on my radar? What have been some of your experiences with higher education in El Paso?

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.