Nearly 100 students enter the gym at the Texas A&M International University in Laredo. They’re practicing for their graduation. As they enter, Pomp and Circumstance fills the gymnasium as it’s played into a microphone off a phone.
Principal Israel Castilla takes the students through the ceremony.
“You’re going to be shaking hands and then you have three seconds with the picture,” Castilla says.
These students, though, aren’t graduating from college. These are high school students, but many of them are already halfway toward a college degree – thanks to their school: Laredo Early College High School.
Two days a week, students take courses at a college campus with other college students. The rest of the week, they’re back at their high school where they review material and completing coursework. That way, they can simultaneously work toward their high school diploma and earn credit toward a post-secondary degree for free. That’s a big help to low-income and first-generation college students. It brings them into the college system and makes it more affordable. Imagine being the first in your family to go to college.
“I saw it as an opportunity to get ahead of everything especially with college credits,” says Homero Coss, 17, a senior at the school. “Even then I knew I was coming from humble beginnings, whatever I could do to help pay for my college, I was going to take advantage of that.”
At first Coss felt a little weird being in a college classroom with students who were older than him.
“It was scary. I was like a 15-year-old kid over here with 20 even 30-year-old college students.”
But he got over it and did well. Coss moved to the U.S. from Mexico when he was three. He’s lived in Laredo his entire life and considers it home. His father worked construction while his mom cleaned houses and raised Coss and his five older sisters. Watching his parents work hard made him want to go to college and have more opportunities than they did.
“When we came here my mom did a lot of housekeeping jobs. And I would see these people with big beautiful houses and I would always think why?” Coss remembers. “Why wouldn’t we live in those houses? And the fact that we didn’t have the money for that. If I had a chance to have my family live in houses like that and leave peacefully, live in comfort, I wanted to do that. I wanted to create a better home for my family.”
Principal Israel Castilla says for many first-generation families, college can seem like an impossible goal. Just 16 percent of Texans in the Rio Grande Valley have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Castilla thinks early college high school programs can help fix that.
“It’s no longer so far away,” Castilla says. “It’s a lot of closer now. Instead of those four years, now it’s two years. Two years with the support you were given. You have been successful. You’ve been excellent in this. Now it’s just time to move on and continue pursuing what you started.”
Usually, early college high schools partner with community colleges. If students take enough classes, they can earn an associate’s degree or certificate before they graduate, which means they can immediately enter the workforce after high school.
At this school in Laredo, the stakes are a bit higher. The school partners with a four-year university. Students can earn up to two years worth of college credit. But, it means they need to keep going after they graduating high school to earn a degree.
“You have to continue at it. You’re not getting anything yet,” Castilla says he tells students. “But you’re halfway there to that road. While you get an associate’s, you’re going through the whole graduation, you’re giving the option.”
The option is to stick with the associate’s and start working, or continue and earn a bachelor’s degree – which could open the door to more opportunity.
“Well, do I continue or do I stay with this? That becomes a little bit more of a challenge.”
As the youngest in his family, Coss is benefitting from a school that didn’t exist when his sisters were in high school. Most of his siblings haven’t been able to attend college because it’s too expensive and life got in the way.
But Coss is graduating with around two years worth of college credit from Texas A&M International University – a savings of more than $40,000. He plans to go to the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley and study biomedical science.