Higher education is unaffordable for tens of thousands of families in the El Paso region, but some business and education leaders are working to alleviate some of that financial burden before students ever set foot on a college campus.

The Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED, has been doling out funds to pay for El Paso teachers to receive dual-credit credentials.

Once a teacher has received their dual-credit certification, they can begin teaching dual-credit courses that allow qualifying students to earn college credit while enrolled in high school, at no cost to the student or family.

Since the Accelerated Certification for Teachers, or ACT, scholarship was established in 2015, about $730,000 in funding has been distributed to 365 teachers in nine El Paso County school districts.

“We think the objective should be that everyone graduating from high school in our region should be college ready,” said Eddie Rodriguez, an El Paso attorney and executive director of CREEED. “That’s what the skillsets of the economy demand.”

The ACT scholarship is funded by $1 million set aside from a $10 million Hunt Family Foundation gift. CREEED wants to increase the number of dual-credit teachers to 500 by 2023.

There are 7,811 students in El Paso County who are enrolled in dual-credit or early college high school courses, a 65% increase from the 2014-15 school year, according to dual-credit student count reports from El Paso Community College, provided by CREEED.

A student becomes eligible when they pass the Texas Success Initiative test or receive a “masters” score in Algebra I or English on the STAAR state exam.

Manny Soto, data director for CREEED, said there are 21,000 students who are eligible to take dual-credit courses but are not doing so.

To meet the demand of eligible students, Soto said, there would need to be about 840 teachers.

“That number’s gonna grow,” Soto said.

CREEED hopes the increased number of students enrolled in dual-credit classes will also boost the post-secondary readiness of the region’s graduates.

Gutierrez said that although the number of students enrolling in post-secondary programs in the borderland is increasing, too many students are still having to take remedial classes in subjects like Algebra.

“In some cases, students have to take three developmental math classes before they could take anything for credit,” Soto said. “Students would either fail it or wait until the very end and withdraw because they couldn’t pass it.”

Soto said data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board show that students who receive at least 12 college credit hours while still in high school nearly double their chance of completing college within six years.

This year, CREEED donated $8,000 to the Canutillo Independent School District and $150,000 to the Socorro Independent School District for the teacher scholarships.

Yvette Aguirre, a U.S. history and speech teacher at Eastlake High School in the Socorro ISD, said the ACT scholarship she received helped her pursue her master’s while still working and teaching.

“The experience of having that higher education gave us a refresher and reminded us of the expectations we need to have with those dual-credit students, because they’re also college students,” Aguirre said.

Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at sesanchez@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105.