It is not often a graduation ceremony comes to the student. And the number of times a ceremony that includes West Texas A&M University president Walter Wendler and four other top administrators driving 436 miles round-trip to present a bachelor’s degree to a graduate can be counted on one finger.
But there they were on the first Wednesday of September, burning up Interstate 20 and U.S. 84 to Roscoe, a town of 1,285 located 50 miles west of Abilene. Awaiting them, among others, was 19-year-old Amanda Sanchez.
There was a method to their mileage.
“We’re here to serve the communities that make up the Panhandle and South Plains,” Wendler said. “We’re not offering a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What we’re trying to do if a student is interested in working hard and has a chance to gain a college education, we want to be here to help them and give them every opportunity to succeed.”
Sanchez is a 2019 graduate of Roscoe Collegiate High School, renamed about a decade ago to emphasize a pilot program that lays the groundwork for a quick and affordable postsecondary education. Community colleges and universities, including West Texas A&M, are partners in the program.
The Roscoe Collegiate System is a college- and career-readiness initiative within the Texas public education system. The P-20 model, beginning as early as pre-K, integrates STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), project-based learning, dual credit courses, internships and research in a concerted effort for postsecondary degrees.
Through grants, like $432,000 from the Greater Texas Foundation, and other financial streams, Roscoe students have little to no financial burden in obtaining an associate or bachelor’s degree.
Roscoe Collegiate partnered with Western Texas Junior College in nearby Snyder with online courses for its high school students. More than 90 percent of graduating seniors over the last four years also had an associate degree.
“They found out pretty quickly that only about half the graduates were continuing on to the university level,” said Brad Johnson, West Texas A&M’s vice president for strategic relations.
That’s where West Texas A&M comes in. The university and a few others are partnering with Roscoe Collegiate to provide a path to a bachelor’s degree for those students. What has worked in Roscoe is catching on in other rural communities.
Educators from rural-heavy states like Iowa and West Virginia have beaten a path to Roscoe. Among the West Virginia contingent were many of the state’s top educational leadership, including Gordon Gee, president of the University of West Virginia.
Closer to Canyon, Sunray ISD and Floydada ISD are expected to implement the program soon. Others may follow. Sunray is in discussion with Amarillo College and Frank Phillips College in Borger as community college partners, while Floydada is targeting South Plains College in Levelland.
West Texas A&M is expected to partner with any school districts in the program because it fits the mission of the university’s long-range plan.
“WT has committed itself to the service of rural communities, in the Panhandle first, but then ‘to the world,’” Johnson said. “One of the most daunting challenges in rural economies is how to raise up and attract an educated workforce.
“In working with these innovative districts, WT is learning how to extend its education to people where they live. This means not only extending the courses through online delivery, but also providing localized in-person support that will assure a much higher rate of success in the post-secondary portions of their educational pathway. In short, this is WT being what it claims to be — committed to serving local first.”
Sanchez is one of seven from the Roscoe 2019 graduating class of 36 pursuing a degree at West Texas A&M. The other six are still enrolled. The university added four students from the May 2020 class who started online work this summer. Two adult students began in the fall, making 13 from the small town enrolled in some form at the university.
Sanchez began taking online courses at Western Texas in Snyder as a high school freshman. By the time she graduated from high school, she, like many others, not only had her associate degree, but needed just 35 hours for a bachelor’s degree in general studies with an emphasis in sociology.
“I wanted to get it done as fast as possible and see where it got me,” she said. “It wasn’t that hard. You just have to know your due dates and give yourself a certain amount of time to get the work done.”
Sanchez took one course per 2019 summer session, and then five courses in the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020. One year out of high school, she’s a college graduate with no debt. She is working on her master’s degree in counseling with three online courses this semester. That, too, is under the P-20 model program.
“It’s made a big difference,” she said. “I wouldn’t have my associate or bachelor’s degree right now because of resources. I would have hoped I’d be able to go to college, but not real sure.”
Because Sanchez was the first, Wendler; Johnson; Jessica Mallard, dean of fine arts and humanities, under which Sanchez earned her degree; Todd Raspberry, vice president for philanthropy and external relations; and Trish McCormick, senior academic adviser for Sanchez and others in the program, all made the day trip to and from Roscoe for the degree ceremony.
The plan is this will be so common in the future that graduates like Sanchez will simply have to join commencement exercises with several hundred others.
“Students from small communities frankly get overlooked sometimes,” Wendler said. “The fact of the matter is small communities are the backbone of this nation. The message is we’re doing this one student at a time.
“Our big idea is to serve students as they come to us one at a time and serve them in a way that benefits them and their family. We don’t have a grand plan here. It’s not about a social agenda. It’s about individual capabilities and individuals taking responsibility for their actions and WT helping them reach that goal.”
Jon Mark Beilue is a writer for West Texas A&M University in Canyon.
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