Fort Worth has lagged behind other major Texas cities in securing major corporate relocations and benefiting from the economic development that usually follows. However, leaders see a path forward: Cultivating a skilled workforce through K-12 schools and higher education.

Education reporter Jacob Sanchez examines the issue through a three-part series: 

This series was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. The fellowship supports new reporting into issues related to postsecondary career and technical education.

Danielle Mares pulled each of her fingers back one by one. After going through each of her 10 digits, she bent her hand back and forth.

Stretching her hands is important. Her hands are how she communicates with people who are deaf. She amplifies their voices. 

Mares plans to become an American Sign Language interpreter. She’s in her third semester at Tarrant County College, where she will earn an associate degree and several certifications. Mares has had this dream since falling in love with ASL after picking up a dictionary with the sign alphabet and taking classes in middle and high school. Now, at 19, she is on the precipice of achieving it.

“Signing has always been a love of mine, and I always thought about being an interpreter,” Mares said. “When I got to TCC, I learned more about the program and how it was an accessible way for me to pursue something I loved.”

TCC has made it easier for students like Mares to figure out how to reach their ambitions. The college shaped its degrees and certifications into five pathways that point students in the right direction to achieve their career goals. This approach, in place for about two years, is part of a statewide initiative to see more students earn postsecondary credentials. Fort Worth leaders also see this as part of an effort to enhance the area’s workforce development pipeline to fill existing jobs and lure more businesses to this city of nearly 1 million residents.

TCC is a natural choice to rev up Fort Worth’s economic engine. The college’s enrollment, while down since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020, rivals that of the University of Texas at Arlington and dwarfs those of private institutions Texas Christian University and Texas Wesleyan University. Additionally, tuition is relatively low cost, especially when compared with more traditional four-year colleges.

Bill Coppola is the TCC Southeast Campus president and part of Mayor Mattie Parker’s Council on Education and Workforce Development. Coppola sees TCC as serving residents who want to stay in Tarrant County. The college also creates the foundation of education and training here. That makes TCC unlike any other college in the county.

“TCC is the backbone,” Coppola said. “A community college’s core mission is to help the community, and that’s what we’re doing.”

‘I could branch out’

All students at TCC are asked the same question when they first enroll: What job do you want?

The college’s five pathways give examples of the types of careers students can make for themselves. The pathways are:

  • Arts and humanities 
  • Business and industry
  • Health science
  • Human and public services
  • Science, technology, engineering and math

Each is aligned to endorsements students can earn by the time they graduate high school. The optional endorsements are effectively majors, and are intended to help students find a clearer route to a college major. Texas introduced this in a 2013 overhaul of graduation requirements. The law went into effect in 2014.

All are starting points. Students’ answers to what job they want determines which path they follow. Advisers help students navigate which pathway is right for them.

Take Mares, the TCC student, for example. Her major is part of TCC’s human and public service pathway. The college has collected similarly focused degrees, including firefighting and child care, into this path that is all about public service. 

The path is clear to Mares. TCC outlines the degree and certifications she will seek and how much her education will cost her. Beyond that, the college also informed Mares of the jobs her education can help her get, her potential salary, and demand for her occupation. 

However, it does not stop there. TCC also showed Mares how she can further her education after clinching her associate degree. The college even has agreements with four-year institutions, such as the University of Texas at Arlington, to help students more easily transfer.

A student waits at the Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus admissions office, 300 Trinity Campus Circle. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Mares has charted her next few steps. TCC won’t be the end of her education. Mares plans to earn her bachelor’s degree and eventually her master’s degree, which she described as her way of patting herself on the back.

Once she has her ASL associate degree, Mares wants to stick around and work in higher education. Although she can become an interpreter, Mares knows that’s not the only option in front of her. She could decide to go into social work and help people who are deaf get through their problems. TCC helped Mares come to this realization.

“I don’t necessarily have to be an interpreter my whole life. That’s something I learned recently,” Mares said. “I could branch out into counseling, or I could do teaching or something like that.”

Save students money, time

Coppola, the TCC Southeast Campus president, has worked in higher education for decades. He knows the hardest part of running a college: Getting students to finish their degrees. That task can unlock so many opportunities for jobs and be transformative for students. But it can be too much for students to figure out by themselves.

TCC’s guided pathways is trying to make it easier for students to complete their studies and earn their credentials.

The college started exploring this new model in 2016. A year before, researchers argued in a book, “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success,” that the old approach of community college in which students pick and choose what classes they want without a set goal no longer made sense. Students needed a focus and a clear route to get to their destination. Over the next four years, TCC built its pathways. College officials looked at what was happening at the national and state levels before overhauling their courses into five pathways.

TCC was not alone in revamping its programs. More than 250 community colleges across the nation have adopted the guided pathways model. 

In 2019, Elva LeBlanc, then the executive vice chancellor and provost, gave the TCC board of trustees an overview of the pathways the college would roll out the following year. She described this, at the time, new idea as a way to help students save money and aid them in getting their degrees faster. 

Tarrant County College is seen on Feb. 8, 2021. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

At the time, the average number of credit hours TCC students were taking was 90. Students needed only 60 hours. That’s time and money wasted for students, who are, on average, about 24.

Conrad Heede was the president of TCC’s board of trustees when LeBlanc, now the interim chancellor, explained how the college wanted students to have a clear roadmap with plenty of support to their desired postsecondary credential. He was hooked from the moment he learned of the overhaul. 

Heede had firsthand experience trying to navigate college himself and trying to help his children. The pathways TCC has just made sense for Heede because students learn about skills and concepts that are relevant to their future careers. In fact, all seven TCC trustees had faced that difficulty.

“A lot of these students need to find gainful employment — and the sooner, the better,” Heede said. “Guided pathways help students determine where they’re going and help them get there in the least amount of time at the least amount of expense.”

Research shows pathways appear to work. Columbia University’s Teachers College has studied colleges that use many of the practices part of the pathways model. The university has found this approach can lead to better outcomes for students. They are more likely to transfer to a four-year college and are more likely to complete a degree. Colleges have seen increased retention and decreased the number of unnecessary credits students take.

While guided pathways are popular, the outcomes of these reforms, including TCC’s, are not yet clear. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted TCC’s rollout. Putting pathways into place takes at least three years to lay the groundwork and then an additional six to put into action, including reorganizing outcome measurements, according to Columbia’s Teachers College.

Coppola views TCC’s pathways as a key to a brighter future for Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

“A city survives by attracting businesses here. You don’t want someone to come here and say, ‘Well, you don’t have a workforce, so I’m going to go here,” Coppola said.

‘Everything that I dreamed’

Danielle Mares is a Tarrant County College student studying American Sign Language. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Mares, the TCC student studying ASL, had this set idea of going to a four-year institution like her brother, and having the college experience she saw in movies and television and heard about from others. 

She wanted to go to college after learning more and more about it from teachers while in Fort Worth ISD. Most of her education prior to high school was homeschool. 

Her teachers and an aunt encouraged her to do so. She even took classes that allowed her to get credit for high school and college.

But, during her senior year of high school, Mares was going through a lot at home. Her parents divorced. Her family was homeless. Her dream of going to college appeared to be slipping through her fingers. 

She knew the cost of attending a four-year college would be too high to pay by herself. She talked to her brother, Mike, about this and how she knew she could not burden her family with a high-dollar bill for college. 

Her brother told her a four-year college wasn’t her only option. He encouraged her to go to TCC. It was close to home and the price was just right. He reminded Mares that college is what she made of it — not some preconceived notion or stereotype.  

“I understand that very well now because the experience that I’ve had at TCC is definitely everything that I dreamed that college would be,” Mares said.

Mares is well on her way to becoming an ASL interpreter. She should graduate next spring, ending her two-year pathway to joining Fort Worth’s workforce. But, more importantly, Mares will make herself proud to achieve another goal of hers: Be among the first in her family to graduate from college.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.