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Texas Tech University is in an enviable position -- as college attendance is declining nationally and competition for students is intensifying, enrollment at the university is growing. It hit a record high in the fall of 2018 and is on track to reach 40,000 students by 2020.

But the university still needs to find new pools of potential students in order to keep growing. At other institutions, doing this might require expensive marketing campaigns. Not so at Texas Tech. Administrators at the public research university in Lubbock, Tex., won't have to spend a lot of money or look very far. A student pipeline has been hiding in plain sight -- an online K-12 school with thousands of students and founded by the university itself.

Texas Tech University K-12 was created in 1993 to help students whose needs were not being met by traditional school districts. It provides distance education courses to homeschooled children, students who've fallen behind in traditional school or who were bullied, child performers, military families, and adults who never completed high school. The school, which is accredited by the Texas Education Agency and charges tuition and fees, currently has a domestic enrollment of 1,865 full-time students and 6,139 part-time students.

Though created by Texas Tech, TTU K-12 operated independently from the university for many years, said Kathy Austin, the university's associate vice president for information technology.

“When we started the K-12 operation, it functioned like a little silo. It had its own faculty, its own staff, and over the years has reported through various different lines to the provost,” she said. “It didn’t get a lot of visibility -- very few in the cabinet had any idea what a gem we had.”

TTU K-12 is now part of the Texas Tech University eLearning and Academic Partnerships, a division of the Office of the Provost. It was a transition prompted by necessity, explained Austin. Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, TTU K-12 managed all of its own technology, but it “didn’t have the resources to do it right,” she said. Around 2012, the then executive director of TTU K-12 reached out to Texas Tech’s CIO for help. By 2014, the two parties had drawn up a formal agreement to work together -- sharing funds and resources.

Austin said enrollment at TTU K-12 has recently picked up because of the improved technology. But staff are preparing for another potential boost in enrollment related to recently adopted legislation that will give TTU K-12 access to state funding to cover tuition and fees for in-state students.

Increased State Support

Access to state funding represents a “huge change” for TTU K-12, said Justin Louder, associate vice provost of elearning and academic partnerships at Texas Tech. “We’ll be able to reach a whole new population of students. Before we were much more like a private school,” he said.

Louder isn’t anticipating thousands of new students overnight, but he said the school is preparing for expansion and the possibility of some additional accountability measures.

“It will take a little bit of time for everybody to get on board with this,” he said. “My guess is that we’ll see steady growth -- online education isn’t something that works for everybody.”

Giving TTU K-12 access to state funding is an “acknowledgment of the legitimacy of online learning,” said Austin. “The state is innovating, opening the door to other providers.”

TTU K-12 administrators didn’t push for access to the state funding, but they're excited about the opportunity it presents, said Louder. This policy picked up steam politically because of concern from state lawmakers that for-profit companies could start to dominate online K-12 education in Texas, he said. “They saw this as a way to provide another option.”

The University of Texas at Austin, which runs an online high school, will also be granted access to the state funding. Louder noted that the funding is new money that is not being taken away from public schools.

International Expansion

In addition to more in-state students, TTU K-12 plans to significantly expand its national and international enrollment, said Louder. The school currently has 1,980 full-time international students enrolled, many through partnerships in Brazil, Vietnam and China.

“We’re seeing a lot of growth in non-English-speaking countries,” said Louder. “A lot of students want to go to university in the U.S. or Europe and want an English-language education.”

He said the growth in international students at TTU K-12 has caught the attention of administrators at Texas Tech. The university is now working to streamline the admissions process for TTU K-12 students who choose to study at Texas Tech.

“We want to increase access to higher education, and we want the students at TTU K-12 to continue studying with us,” said Louder. “We’ve had some conversations with admissions about how to ease some of the hurdles. One thing we’re working on is a way for TTU K-12 high school graduates to gain automatic admission to the university.”

He hopes this process will be available to TTU K-12 students by fall 2020.

Cari Moye, high school principal of TTU K-12, said the students at TTU K-12 have a wide range of reasons for studying with the school, and not all of them will want to study at Texas Tech, or indeed go to college at all. That’s fine with the school, she said -- students won’t be pressured into making decisions that aren’t right for them. She added that the school is working to offer more college and career-readiness resources to students, including advising, special courses and career aptitude quizzes.

Just a small percentage of students who study at TTU K-12 now continue on to study at Texas Tech. The institution hopes to entice more to do so through scholarships, invitations to events on campus and increased exposure to the work of the university, said Austin.

“That’s a piece of the puzzle that we’re just starting to connect,” she said.

“I think there are two areas of real growth -- increasing the quality of our engagement with our community and extending the pipeline,” said Austin.

Making it easier for students to transition from TTU K-12 to the university might seem like an obvious move, but change at large institutions can sometimes be slow, she said.

“It takes the right catalyst to recognize the benefits of collaboration and the joining of disparate parts.”

Connecting K-12 and Higher Ed

Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said Texas Tech has always been “two steps ahead of everyone else” in connecting higher ed to the labor market, and it also could lead the way in connecting K-12 to higher ed.

Silos between K-12, higher ed and employers are gradually being broken down, he said. But the movement toward a connected education system is slow and uneven. Many higher education institutions have been reluctant to be judged by employment outcomes and earnings data, and there are few incentives for universities and colleges to reach back into K-12, he said.

For public institutions looking for new student pipelines, K-12 could be a fruitful source, said Carnevale. He noted, however, that it is unlikely that elite institutions will look to work with K-12 schools as they already have a strong pipeline of legacy admissions.

“Elite institutions don’t want to hook up with K-12,” he said. “Refusing kids is the coin of the realm in higher ed.”

By creating connections between K-12, higher ed and the labor market, researchers may be able to better understand why some students succeed and others don’t. Carnevale believes that collecting data on students throughout their education and career should be done “for equity’s sake.”

“We know that if you’re in school with high test scores and you come from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, you have a 30 percent chance of graduating college and getting a decent job. Rich kids with the same test scores have a 70 percent chance,” said Carnevale.

“Everybody stumbles along the way, but the less advantaged kids don’t get up, either because they don’t have the parental support or resources -- that’s the reason we need to make these connections.”

A Research Opportunity

Austin believes Texas Tech has a unique opportunity to track students throughout their education. Collecting data on students from when they begin kindergarten all the way until they earn a Ph.D. presents a tremendous opportunity for educational research, she said.

Although TTU K-12 and the university already do sophisticated data modeling to predict student success, the institutions currently have little insight into how students are learning online. When a student opens a page in the institution’s current version of the learning management system, Blackboard Learn, instructors have little information about how the student is interacting with the page.

“We joke that students could open a page, go out for coffee and come back two hours later and we wouldn’t know,” said Austin. When Texas Tech completes its transition to Blackboard Ultra -- a revamped version of Blackboard Learn -- Austin is hopeful instructors and researchers will gain much more insight into whether students are posting threads in discussion forums, watching videos, listening to audio files, reviewing materials or taking quizzes.

“It’ll be organized in a way that we can analyze,” she said. “It’s going to allow us to ask specific questions about how students are learning. What behaviors in online learning courses predict strong or poor class performance? We haven’t been able to mine that very detailed behavioral data before.”

With enough data, it's possible Texas Tech could predict quite early whether children are likely to succeed in college, Austin said. But she is vehemently opposed to the concept of using data to channel children into particular career pathways and determining early on whether children have what it takes to go to college. Doing this would disadvantage children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who might struggle in school but have the same innate ability as wealthier classmates.

“The way you use the data is to provide resources -- to help students overcome anything that is limiting them,” she said.

Rachel Scherer, senior director of data and analytics for Blackboard, said knitting together the K-12 and higher ed experience is an “emerging area of interest across the education industry.” But she agreed with Austin that there “doesn’t seem to be any value” in using data to categorize children. Rather, she believes the data should be used to pinpoint the moment in time when students might need help.

Texas Tech has a “cool opportunity” to learn more about its students, said Scherer. “We’ve been measuring educational outcomes for a long time, but this idea of really understanding this student or this population over the duration of their education is unprecedented.”

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