Trends in University-level Undergraduates in Texas: SCH at 2-year Colleges and Associate’s Degrees

Previous posts in this blog have explored various aspects of enrollment in public colleges and universities in Texas. Whether looking at direct enrollment trends of high school graduates, the “some college, no bachelors degree” population in Texas, or recent demographic shifts in higher education, the blog posts have sought to better understand challenges facing institutions of higher education now and in the future. Regardless of the path taken, when a student enrolls as an undergraduate at a four-year institution, the primary objectives are consistent: persist successfully and earn a bachelors degree. 

To this end, numerous policy levers have been pulled to promote increasing access to higher education and improving persistence and graduation outcomes for students, especially students from historically underserved populations. Examples of such policymaking in Texas have been House Bill (HB) 505 passed in 2015, which removed limitations on “dual credit courses that a high school student could enroll in each semester or year” (Texas Legislature Online), and the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) adoption of College and Career Readiness School Models that include Early College High Schools (ECHS), Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (T-STEM) programs, and Pathways In Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) programs. 

While any policy evaluation is beyond the scope and intent of this blog, there are certainly indicators of effect that can be observed that would tend to signal trends moving in the desired direction. The remainder of this post will examine trends in two of the possible indicators: the number and percentage of undergraduates at public four-year universities in Texas with earned hours at 2-year institutions, and the percentage of undergraduates at public four-year universities with an earned associate’s degree.

Undergraduates in Texas with Hours at 2-year Institutions

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) provides data through its Accountability System Interactive Portal that shows the number of undergraduates enrolled at 4-year universities who have earned student credit hours (SCH) at public 2-year institutions in Texas. At the most fine-grained level, the THECB provides student counts across eight categories ranging from no SCH earned at 2-year colleges up to 67+ hours earned at 2-year Texas colleges. All of the data include all undergraduate students enrolled at 4-year universities during the fall semesters ranging from 2014 to 2019.

The visualization below has three tabs across the top that will be discussed in sequence. Clicking on the “Full Screen” button in the bottom right-hand corner of the visualization will expand the size of the visualization for easier readability. In order to return to normal size, either hit the “Esc” key on the keyboard or click on the “Exit Full Screen” also located in the bottom right of the screen. Also, each visualization has embedded tooltips that can be activated by either hovering over the visualization with a mouse or clicking on a visual element if using a touch-based interface.

The first interactive visualization below, which is identified in the tab as “Two Groups”, shows undergraduate enrollment data aggregated into two bins: students without any SCH earned at 2-year colleges, and students with at least 1 SCH earned at 2-year institutions. As can be seen, the number of undergraduates at public universities in Texas with some SCH at 2-year colleges has increased from 2014 to 2019 by 11,000 students, which represents an increase 3.6 percent. By contrast, the increase in the number of university undergraduates with no SCH from 2-year institutions has increased by 24.9 percent, growing from just over 169,000 students in 2014 to more than 212,000 in 2019

Clicking on the “Statewide Proportions” tab at the top of the visualization will open a stacked bar chart that shows proportional trends over time within the eight THECB-defined categories shown in the legend across the top (None to 67+ Hours). The width of each bar segment is based on the percentage of the total number of undergraduates enrolled in public 4-year universities during each fall semester. For example, the light-blue bar on the left is labeled as “SCH Group: None”, which shows the same trend seen on the “Two Groups” visualization where the increase from 169,811 in 2014 to 212,052 in 2019 represented 24.9 percent growth in this category. The proportion of this group also increased to where over 40 percent of university undergraduates in 2019 did not have any SCH earned at 2-year colleges, a 4.38 percentage point increase in six years. Although not as visually apparent, the “25-29 Hours”, “30-42 Hours”, “43-59 Hours”, and “60-66 Hours” groups all had numeric increases from 2014 to 2019, while the “0-12 Hours”, “13-24 Hours”, and “67+ Hours” groups saw numeric decreases from 2014 to 2019. These trends are easier to see on the “Statewide Group Bars” tab, which breaks out the data by category and year. Hovering over each bar will show the numeric and percentage one-year change within each category. For those university undergraduates with earned credits at 2-year colleges, a weighted average was calculated by taking the mid-point of each category. Utilizing this measure as a proxy for student-level data showed a slight average increase from 32.3 SCH in 2014 to 33.4 SCH in 2019. Again, this approximated average includes only those university-level undergraduate students with some hours earned at 2-year colleges. 


Undergraduates in Texas with an Associate's Degree

As shown above, the growth in the number of SCH earned at 2-year colleges by university-level undergraduates occurred in the categories between “25-29 Hours” and “60-66 Hours”. By far, the highest percentage growth was seen in the “60-66 Hours” group, which grew by 39 percent from 2014 to 2019. The 17-percent increase in the “43-59 Hours” group was the second-highest percentage increase. The growth in these two segments prompted inquiry into the trends related to what percentage of university-level undergraduates have an earned associate’s degree. This metric should not be interpreted as meaning the associate’s degree was earned prior to enrolling in a public university, as the data provided by THECB do not delineate the timing of when the associate’s degree was earned. It is a simple count of those undergraduate students enrolled during a specific fall semester who held an associate’s degree. This count was divided by total undergraduate enrollment to calculate a percentage.

The visualization below shows the distribution of the percentage of associate’s degree holders by public university campus from 2014 to 2019. Each bubble is a Texas public university, where the color of the bubble is associated with the System affiliation of the university, and the size of the bubble is mapped to the number of undergraduates with an associate’s degree. The four public independent universities have been grouped together for convenience. The box-and-whisker plot overlaying the university bubbles shows a measure of central tendency (median is the middle bar of the box), the spread of the distribution (edges of the box representing the lower and upper quartiles, and the whiskers showing lower and upper extremes), and outliers that extend beyond the upper whisker. The data can be filtered by System or University using the dropdown menus located just below the visualization title.

Hovering over the elements of the plot shows that the median percentage of undergraduates with an associate’s degree was 14.2 percent in 2014 and increased to 18.2 percent in 2019. Although not shown below, the number of university undergraduates with an associate’s degree in 2014 was 57,283, and that number increased to 82,330 in 2019 for a 43.7-percent increase. We can also see that the boxes are shifting to the right over time, meaning that there is a consistent pattern of more undergraduates having associate’s degrees across all Texas public universities. The university with the combination of largest number and highest percentage of undergraduates with an associate’s degree is The University of Texas at Arlington, which is the orange bubble located at the top edge of the large box. UT Arlington had 7,169 undergraduates enrolled in fall 2019 with associate’s degrees, which comprised 25 percent of their almost 29,000 undergraduate enrollment. These data points, along with the breakdown of the THECB SCH at 2-year categories and the makeup of the undergraduate population by enrollment group (new undergrads, new transfers, and continuing students), are shown in the university-level hover. To the right of UT Arlington are institutions who are currently or have recently been upper-division institutions, which have historically had more undergraduates with earned associate’s degrees. The state’s two flagship universities, Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin, are located at the far left of the box-and-whisker plots with less than 4 percent of undergraduates holding an associate’s degree in 2019.

So What?

The trends discussed above prompt more questions than answers, and are seemingly worthy of further study. Why has the group of students with zero student credit hours at 2-year colleges increased by almost 25 percent in the past six years? How much of this trend can be explained by the growth of the Hispanic undergraduate student population at universities in recent years, which is a segment of the dual credit population that has historically been underrepresented? What effects will the increase in College and Career Readiness School Models across the state, which specifically target historically underserved populations, have in increasing the level of SCH and associate’s degrees earned at 2-year colleges by university undergraduate enrollees? Does having an earned associate’s degree increase the likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree while positively decreasing other outcomes (e.g., time-to-degree, excessive credits-to-degree, student debt)? Answering these and many other associated questions will require access to data across education domains that link student-level features (i.e., demographics, academic preparation indicators, course-taking patterns) as they progress through the K-12 to higher education pathway in Texas. We look forward to engaging with these topics in future posts.

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