This article originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News on 12/27/2012

In 2000, Texas embarked on a bold higher education reform initiative, Closing the Gaps by 2015. With support from educational, corporate and political leaders, the initiative aimed to remedy disparities in our state, as well as between Texas and other states, in four areas: student participation, student success, excellence and research.

Now Texans need to take the next step. A 2012 University of Pennsylvania study documents that, despite the progress made, “Huge inequities persist in Texas higher education. Among younger adults ages 25-34, 43 percent of whites hold at least an associate degree, compared with 28 percent of blacks and only 15 percent of Hispanics.”

Furthermore, a 2011 study by the American Enterprise Institute reveals marked class inequality. The study “Cheap for Whom?” finds a huge disparity between rich and poor schools, with the richer securing a vastly wider wedge of the pie: “Among not-for-profit institutions, the amount of taxpayer subsidies hovers between $1,000 and $2,000 per student per year until we turn to the most selective institutions. … Among these already well-endowed institutions, the taxpayer subsidy jumps substantially to more than $13,000 per student per year.”

Jorge Klor de Alva, co-author of the AEI study, concludes: “If the country is to retain its competitive edge, it must reverse the current policies that result in providing the lowest levels of taxpayer support to the institutions that enroll the highest percentage of low-income, nontraditional and minority students — the fastest-growing segments of the population.” More than half of postsecondary students in Texas are nontraditional — over the age of 25 and employed in outside jobs. What’s more, for grades K-12, more than 50 percent of students in Texas are Hispanic.

One way to increase the success of poor and minority students is for the Legislature to emulate the model codified by Virginia, which establishes simultaneous dual enrollment at community colleges and residential universities. Virginia’s model requires the development of “transfer, dual enrollment and admissions agreements” between its two- and four-year public colleges and universities, “including programs for qualified students to be simultaneously accepted” by a community college and a four-year public institution. Under the plan, all who complete their associate degree program from the community college are automatically enrolled in the four-year institution.

This model expedites transfers and graduation by guaranteeing admission to a regional university to students successfully completing an associate degree or the requisite core courses at a local community college. Such a model would also enable poor and minority students to attend college at vastly less expense than is charged by a residential university.

There are legislative efforts to facilitate the pathway between community colleges and residential colleges, such as Dallas GOP Rep. Dan Branch’s HB 30, which would direct the Coordinating Board “to develop statewide transfer compacts in which public and private institutions of higher education, including career schools or colleges, may participate.”

This is an excellent start, but to help assure the continuity needed for student success, simultaneous dual enrollment in community colleges and residential colleges would get us even further. To ensure that dual enrollment maintains academic rigor, faculty committees, drawn from the two- and four-year colleges, would need to agree on common-course outcomes.

We do not endorse the misguided expectation that a bachelor’s degree is good for all. But by following Virginia’s model, Texas stands a better chance of ensuring that bright, motivated poor kids will not be deterred from a four-year degree through financial hardship and bureaucratic barriers.