Arlena Lege is a modern-day traveling saleswoman who represents higher education opportunities at El Paso Community College to hundreds of the region’s rural high school students. Business is good – but it always could be better.

Lege (pronounced leh-JEY) is a “transition specialist” officially, but she is a self-described recruiter. She calls, texts, emails, has virtual office hours and does site visits to provide information to students, parents, families and counselors at high schools in Clint, Fabens, Tornillo, San Elizario and Fort Hancock.

She and two other members of the EPCC Recruitment Services team recently participated in the 2023 TACRAO (Texas Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers) El Paso College Week at Clint High School. EPCC was among the more than 40 institutions of higher education and military service present for the event in the campus gym. While the event was at Clint, students from the other rural schools also participated.

Lege talked about her job as hundreds of students began to mill around the many tables staffed by recruiters from throughout the state and beyond.

“When the students see me at (EPCC) Welcome Days at the start of the semester, they’ll make a point of coming up and telling me how helpful I was to them,” said Lege, who became an EPCC recruiter four years ago. “That just brightens my day.”

Those relationships start or grow stronger at events such as College Week because recruiters often are the initial faces of their institutions.

Lege regularly connects with her rural campuses to talk about admissions deadlines, new degree and credential programs, and work-study opportunities. Her visits along with other special presentations are among the reasons why she accrues approximately 27,000 miles on her car annually.

El Paso Community College recruiter Arlena Lege sets up the EPCC information table prior to the start of the El Paso College Week at Clint High School. Lege stays in contact with the region’s rural school districts through texts, emails, virtual meetings and site visits. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

Campus visits

On this campus visit, the EPCC recruiters covered their table with a purple college drape as well as promotional literature about the institution’s programs and services, as well as SWAG pens marked with the EPCC logo. This day’s crowd is somewhat shy, but the students eventually ask questions about courses, credentials and degree plans in nursing, education, graphic arts, automotive technology, architecture, criminal justice and psychology. Some just want a pen. One group of boys was more interested in the best school for fraternity parties.

The recruiters hand out a bilingual Recruitment Service brochure that features enrollment steps and the price per semester, about $1,600 for 12 hours which is called the “best value in El Paso.” Price is important to these students because many of them come from modest backgrounds. Since the 1990s, these rural school districts have been under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, which allows districts to provide free lunches to all students because at least 40% are considered low income.   

Lege stresses the availability of financial aid and scholarships to offset the financial burdens of college. She knows a good percentage dismiss college because they believe they must work to help their families.

For those students, she promotes EPCC’s technical credentials that could be completed in as little as six months. Some of the more popular options include welding, cosmetology, HVAC and diesel mechanics. Her hope is that they will access the financial aid, do well in school and decide to stay for an associate degree.

Briana Lujan, a senior at Fort Hancock High School, called college a “massive risk” but she knows that it is a ticket to a better job and a financially stable future. She wants to start with a cosmetology credential and then move on to a child care career.

Lujan said her initial concern is the cost of tuition and fees, but also transportation. She said the distance – approximately 48 miles – means she will need a car and that includes gas, insurance and a parking permit.

“College is pricey, but that degree would make my family proud, ” Lujan said.

El Paso Community College recruiters, from left, Rebecca Ojeda, Arlena Lege and Miguel Torres, share information about the college with students from the areas rural school districts during an El Paso College Week event at Clint High School. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

Lorena Flores, Fabens High School college adviser, said she appreciated Lege’s hands-on efforts to connect with her students because many cannot travel to attend recruiting events at EPCC. Flores said face-to-face visits take the recruiting beyond the brochures and videos to create a sense of inclusion.

“(Lege’s) presence makes them think a little more about attending her institution,” Flores said. “It’s like you’re telling the students that you want them there.”

Socorro resident Eddie Villalba graduated from Clint High School in 2022. He said he did not interact with recruiters in high school, but enrolled at EPCC because he thought a smaller campus would suit him better.

Villalba took as many dual credit classes as possible in high school because they were free and to speed up his time to get a degree. He earned an EPCC scholarship that pays for more than half of his college expenses, and juggles his classes with a job as a veterinary tech. The Clint alumnus expects to earn an associate degree in geology next spring, and plans to apply for a job with the U.S. Forest Service.

Villalba said he has enjoyed his college experience in part because of the freedom to select a class schedule around his job, and because faculty always seemed available when he had questions. It also has helped him grow up.

“Going to school is up to you,” Villalba said. “It’s your responsibility to do better for yourself.”

Eddie Villalba, a 2022 graduate of Clint High School, is a second year student at El Paso Community College. He said he has enjoyed the smaller campus experience. (Daniel Perez / El Paso Matters)

According to EPCC and University of Texas at El Paso records, a small but steady percentage of the rural graduates enroll at their institutions. In most cases, the numbers are still below their pre-pandemic levels, but EPCC’s focus on career-oriented and short-term credentials should help.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently released the preliminary results of its fall 2023 enrollment study. Among its highlights was the growing student interest in credential programs. In contrast to 2022, enrollment for certifications rose almost 10% compared to 3.6% for associate degrees and less than 1% for bachelor’s degrees.

In a study released in January 2022, the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges stated that rural-serving post-secondary institutions play an important role in the academic and social well-being of a rural community. The study showed that rural-serving institutions (RSIs) directly or indirectly affect millions of people. One example was during the pandemic when institutions worked to provide technology to students with poor internet access so they could continue their education.

As part of the report, Andrew Koricich, the project’s principal investigator and the alliance’s executive director, said that RSIs were important academic access points for low-income students and those from marginalized racial backgrounds, and were critical to regional economic development because they often are among their region’s largest employers.

Lege said her main message to her rural students is to dream big and to not stress if they do not have an immediate plan for their lives.  

“I tell them they will be happier if they follow a path that they choose themselves,” Lege said.

Lege said the recent College Week event is a warm up for the busy part of her year in early 2024 when EPCC engages in numerous Operation College Bound activities. That is where counselors, advisers, and representatives from the offices of admissions, financial aid and new student orientation go to the rural campuses to help with registration.

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.