When Hector Funes entered Texas A&M University as a freshman, he quickly came to the realization that he wasn’t as prepared academically as many of his fellow Aggies, and he points to his public education in Texas as the reason why.

As an infant, Funes, who is now 23, had moved with his parents from San Antonio to his father’s birthplace of Honduras, where he attended private school until the fifth grade. That’s when his life took a dramatic turn. Funes’ father was shot and nearly killed in an attempted robbery in their Honduran home. After that the Funes family moved back to San Antonio, but medical bills and the higher cost of living meant they had to move in with his maternal grandfather, which is where Hector and his three brothers entered the Texas public education system.

“They were inner city schools and I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back now and meeting people from other places, I realized I had to play catch-up,” he explains. “The school buildings were old and rundown; we only had a few computers―we had to share computers in computer class. It’s a high-crime area; people were dealing drugs and there were a lot of fights on campus.”

Because of where they lived, contends Funes, educators assumed all the students were low-to-moderate achievers. “Senior year, we had an assembly where they talked to us about college, but the only people they invited were from community colleges; they just assumed that was the best we could do.”

Funes had developed an early interest in science and math, “but in my opinion, the classes were too easy,” he notes. “There were no AP classes in chemistry, biology and a lot of other subjects. And there were few options for electives like the arts and music. The classes they did have, they just skimmed the subjects―it wasn’t in-depth. I like to learn because I’m curious about things, but if it’s not offered, I can’t learn it.” 

Like Funes, millions of students flowing through the educational pipeline have their own stories of struggle and triumph as they progress from preschool through high school and increasingly, to college. As policymakers are deciding how to fund the system, leaders and scholars at universities, including Texas A&M, are brainstorming ideas to update and improve the educational pipeline so all students have access to quality education.

The Educational Pipeline
Known as P-16, the educational pipeline is a term used to describe the levels of education from preschool through college.

A properly flowing pipeline addresses students’ needs at every point along the way, ensuring progress at each level. It means all students have access to quality education where options are available to suit individual needs, students graduate, and educational institutions are held accountable for results. 

A leaky pipeline allows students to slip through the cracks and drop out, or like Funes, graduate from high school ill-prepared for college. As Texas and the nation changes, the pipeline must evolve and adapt, say education reform advocates. 

A Changing Population
Texas gained more people than any other state from July 2011-July 2012, according to the Census Bureau, and a growing population means added demands on the education system. The state’s population increased by 3.6 percent from 2010-2012, bringing the total count to more than 26 million, second only to California.

Not only is the population growing, the demographics are changing. The non-Anglo population, most notably Hispanics, is growing, while the Anglo population has declined, according to the Texas comptroller’s office. In 1980, Anglos comprised 65.7 percent of the total population, but by 2006, their share had declined to 48.3 percent. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population rose from 21 to 35.7 percent.

The Texas State Data Center estimates that Hispanics will become the majority by 2020. 

This shift is of particular concern when it comes to education, as Texas A&M researcher Luis Ponjuan is finding as he studies the growing achievement gap between males and females in college, specifically Hispanic and African-American males. 

Ponjuan, a professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development, is exploring the reasons why Hispanic and African-American men are less likely than other males to attend college. He says although Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Texas, they are the least likely to participate in higher education.

“This gap between what will be needed in our educated workforce and where we are currently as a nation is severe,” he adds. 

Ponjuan has been awarded a $243,000 grant from the TG Foundation to examine how two- and four-year Texas higher education institutions develop initiatives to address this crisis. 

Fierce Competition
More employers are requiring college degrees and the job market is becoming increasingly competitive. According to a 2011 report released by CompleteCollege.org, 60 percent of the Texas workforce will require some type of post-secondary credential by the year 2020, and currently, only 31 percent of the Texas workforce has that level of education. “This gap of almost 30 percent is huge―there’s no way to tell what the overall impact is going to be on the Texas economy,” says Ponjuan.

Plus, the U.S. is competing on a global scale in fields such as manufacturing and digital technology. Only one-quarter of America’s 52 million K-12 students are performing on par with the average student in Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, Taiwan, or South Korea, while 25 percent of U.S. high school students fail to graduate, the Jobs Council reports. It’s projected that by 2020, the U.S. will have 1.5 million too few college graduates as compared with employer demand.

Getting kids to go to college is the mission of organizations like the Posse Foundation which identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes. The students are put into multicultural teams of 10, or Posses. Partner colleges award Posse Scholars with four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships. 

Texas A&M is one of the first partners of Posse Houston and will welcome 10 Houston Posse Scholars into the university this fall, along with 10 more from Atlanta.

Once students begin attending college, the higher education pipeline can ensure student success and achievement. 

The designers of the Academic Success Center at Texas A&M are under just such a notion. The center was created to help students identify roadblocks to academic success, provide them with access to resources and help them achieve their highest academic potential.

James Kracht, assistant provost for undergraduate studies and the center’s executive director says: “Our goal is to help them master the necessary learning skills to earn their degrees in a timely manner, without a mountain of debt, and enter the workforce as productive members of society.”

Falling Short in High-Tech, High-Need Fields
Advancements in technology pose another challenge in managing the educational pipeline, creating a critical need for both students and teachers to keep up.

Education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has taken center stage as state and national need grows for professionals who are proficient in these fields, “and we knew that we weren’t training enough of them,” says Joseph Morgan, professor of engineering technology at Texas A&M. 

“We realized it was imperative to do more outreach at the high school level. We wanted to engage students in the world of electronics and software development so they would be prepared to meet the technical challenges of society and ultimately make a real contribution to the state of Texas and beyond.”

Students of all ages can have hands-on experiences in STEM fields through Texas A&M’s numerous outreach programs. For example, the Krisys Robotics Workshop, within the Dwight Look College of Engineering, pairs high school students with Aggies to build robotic vehicles. 

“The challenge is to reach kids even earlier in the education pipeline—in grade school and middle school—so they take the right courses to prepare for a STEM major,” says Jay Porter, professor of engineering technology at Texas A&M.

In response to a growing need for engineers in Texas and nationally, Texas A&M plans to expand engineering enrollment to 25,000 by the year 2025. Texas A&M currently enrolls more than 11,000 engineering students annually, placing it among the largest in the nation.

Engineering his Future
After a high school field trip turned his interest to petroleum engineering, Hector Funes did some research and discovered Texas A&M is a leader in engineering education. With no financial support from his parents, Funes attends A&M through scholarships, financial aid and income from three part-time campus jobs. He’s struggled to maintain his grades and has used peer tutoring to fill the gaps.

“I’m thankful that A&M hasn’t kicked me out,” he laughs. “I get bad grades here and there, but I don’t quit. I’m the first in my family to go to college and I want a better life for the kids I’ll have someday.”

Hopefully initiatives such as Generation TX San Antonio, an organization committed to making San Antonio a college-going, career-ready community in a single generation, in cooperation with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, will have positive impacts on the public education system there.

Funes recently landed an internship with a global petroleum engineering firm and plans to graduate in May 2014. He wants to work in the industry for a few years and later pursue graduate degrees. 

“Texas A&M has provided me with so many opportunities,” he says. “I plan to repay that someday by setting up scholarships for students here because I know what a difference it makes, how it can change somebody’s life.”

This story was researched and written by Lesley Henton, Communication Specialist at Texas A&M University. No member of the Texas Monthly editorial staff was involved in its production. For more information about sponsor content, see our FAQ

For more information and to read more about Building the Educational Pipeline in Texas, visit Texas A&M or follow @TAMU on Twitter.