William Serrata, who will take over as the new president of El Paso Community College on Aug. 1, is by all accounts a rare find.
He comes to El Paso from South Texas College in McAllen, which was established by the Texas Legislature in 1993 to serve the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
It is, in fact, the only community college the Legislature has created – a move that Hidalgo and Starr counties had to ratify in 1995. In the 17 years since then, enrollment at South Texas College, called STC, has grown to 31,500, making it slightly larger than El Paso Community College, a 43 year-old institution.
And it was EPCC’s first president, Alfredo G. de los Santos Jr., who wrote the proposal to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to create a new community college in South Texas.
The two colleges are remarkably similar. Both have overwhelmingly Hispanic student bodies that face challenges in English proficiency, college preparedness and financial resources. Eighty-eight percent of EPCC students are Hispanic; 93 percent at STC.
Both schools have five major campuses and very active early college high school programs, where students can complete a two-year associate degree before they graduate from high school.
One difference: The word “community” was dropped from South Texas College’s name in 2004. That’s when it became one of three community colleges in Texas to offer four-year bachelor’s degree.
Serrata, 43, graduated from Texas A&M in 1993, earned a master’s from the University of Texas at Brownsville in 1999, and a doctorate in educational human resource development from Texas A&M in 2009.
Serrata has been with South Texas since 1996, where he rose through the ranks to vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.
That position, he said, was his goal, and he might have stayed there were it not for the prodding of the college’s founding president, Shirley Reed. It was she, he says, who urged him to complete a doctorate, and kept repeating, “When you are a president … .”
After a national search, EPCC’s board of trustees unanimously voted to hire Serrata last month at a salary of $250,000.
“What set him apart was his goal to take EPCC to the next level and not to just maintain what we’re doing well now,” board president Art Fierro said. “He’s not a salesman; he really thinks things through.
“To him, it’s harder to think inside the box than to think outside the box.”
Serrata is the son of a divorced, working mother who was raising four children on her own in Brownsville until she remarried when he was in high school.
He was the first in his family to attend college, and his memory of the difficulties he faced are largely responsible for his sense of mission when it comes to getting young adults into college and helping them finish what they start.
His wife, Jessica, works for STC, and they have two young boys, ages 6 and 21 months.
El Paso Inc. had the chance to interview Serrata while he was in El Paso recently. He talked about Hispanic males in higher ed, graduating without debt and the ambitious goal that the South Texas College president set before him.
Q: What started you on your way to becoming a college president?
Part of my career was really formed at Texas A&M by Dr. John Koldus, who was vice president of student affairs for over 20 years. He had a unique ability to really help students, particularly students who were struggling, first-generation students. He went out of his way to get to know his students despite the fact that A&M had over 40,000 students.
I thought that would be one of the things I wouldn’t mind doing, serving in some sort of capacity. I firmly believe higher education is a noble profession where you’re really trying to help people get ahead in life and reach their full potential.
South Texas Community College had just been created and they were looking for as many people as they could get in 1993 in McAllen. I went to work for them in 1996. It had 5,000 students then and has 31,000 now.
I finished my master’s degree in 1999 after I was selected as director of admissions and registrar in 1998, a position I had moved into as the interim about eight months earlier.
In 2000, I was promoted to director of enrollment services and then in 2002 to dean of enrollment services. In 2005, the first vice president of student services stepped down. The president asked me to step in as an interim. I served in that capacity for almost 18 months and was chosen for the position in 2006.
As I grew with the institution, my president kept saying, “You really need to work on a doctorate.” So I did. Then, she really started to put the seed in my head, saying “Well, William, when you’re a college president ... .”
Until then, the idea had never really dawned on me.
Q: Well, it takes a doctorate to be a president, right?
Yes, it does, and when I started looking for a Ph.D. program, Texas A&M was in the valley recruiting students. They had two options, a Ph.D. in educational administration, which was what I wanted because I knew that was my career, or a Ph.D. in educational human resource development, which I had no interest in. They were looking for 10 and I was one of the 10, but I was the only one that wanted education administration. The other nine wanted human resource development, so I lost.
But, again, I was very fortunate. It was a wonderful program and turned out to be the best thing for me. I took strategic planning courses, organizational development, organizational behavior and leadership courses.
Q: What happened then?
When I finished my doctorate, Dr. Reed started saying “You should think about a college presidency,” and “When you are a president …” That’s really what put the bug in me in 2005 and 2006.
I had a couple of head hunters from California contact me. But I wanted to stay in Texas. Occasionally, positions would come up, but it had to be the right position and the right fit. Then El Paso Community College came along.
Q: South Texas College has about 31,000 students. Describe the student body there compared to EPCC.
They’re extremely similar populations. At South Texas, approximately 93 percent of the students are Hispanic, 75 percent first generation college students, 90 percent on financial aid, and we do not offer loans so it is all Pell and Texas Grant, state aid and scholarship funds.
We have five full campuses, a virtual campus and a large dual college enrollment program. The student body is very comparable to the students served at El Paso Community College and the districts are very similar with five campuses.
We have a nursing and allied campus, very similar to the Rio Grande campus.
Q: And do the students face the same challenges there as here?
Yes. When you look at the money, 90 percent are on financial aid there and that’s without loans. If we had loans, we’d have 100 percent.
Q: Why no student loans?
When the founding president came in, the default rates in the area were just too high. Hidalgo County is the 22nd poorest in the nation and Starr County is the third poorest. Just based on the students we served, we felt we could work hard, find payment plans and make the financial aid process as simple as possible by going to students that we felt we could serve. Those who didn’t qualify for financial aid, we could help with payment plans, installment plans, emergency loans that aren’t a true loan program.
We wanted to get them through their associate degree with no debt.
Q: What about EPCC?
Here, there are loans, but they’re managed well. As far as financial aid, it’s not quite 90 percent here in El Paso, but you do have loans to help the students that have more means.
Q: What were you doing there that you’d like to do here?
One thing that we’ve had success with at South Texas is creating a college-going culture. We’ve seen college-going rates in South Texas improve 12 to 14 percent over the last 10 to 12 years on students graduating high school and going right on to college.
My goal as an enrollment manager at South Texas was to get as many students to go to college as possible. It started with kids in elementary school, and we adopted seven elementary schools in seven different school districts.
These little ones, from as young as kindergarten, commit to going to college. We obviously work very hard, too, with the high schools, because that’s a captured audience. We set the tone in middle school telling them what courses they need to be taking.
Q: How do college-going rates compare in El Paso?
The last data I saw was that approximately 60 percent of El Paso high school graduates are going to college. In South Texas, we’re up to about 62 or 63 percent.
That means there’s still 40 percent of the high school graduating class that’s not going to college. That’s too many. I want to make sure we afford the opportunity for higher education to every student.
It’s ultimately their choice, but I want them to have that choice and to know that EPCC is here to serve them. So I want to focus on that college-going culture.
Q: You made a particular effort to keep students on campus after class. Why and what did you offer them to stick around?
The first thing we did was institute mandatory orientation. When students are accepted, we say congratulations, you must attend a first year connections program, our mandatory orientation.
We also require that they bring a family member – a spouse or a parent or grandparent, a child if they have children. We want it to be a family event and tell parents we know your child needs to work, but they need to work a little bit less and concentrate on school.
We want them to be involved and tell them to join a club, get involved in an organization or develop a study group. So, that’s how we set the tone.
All of the literature says the longer a student is on campus, the more successful that student will be.
Q: Is there a program like that here?
There is an orientation program but I do not know if it is mandatory. But that’s going to be something I’m looking at doing.
Q: Aren’t most students rushing off to work after class?
I study higher ed and look at what the experts say. John Gardner, who is the expert nationally on first-year programs, speaks about the PCP student – parking lot, classroom, parking lot. That student is not connecting with the institution at all, and we need to get them involved on campus. I know some of them have to work, and we’ve developed lots of work-study programs.
We employ our students. We get them on campus, and now they learn the system of higher education. They learn to take advantage of the student success center, the tutoring centers. They learn to utilize the counseling and advising opportunities available to them. They learn to talk to their faculty members.
Q: Why is that important?
To many in the Hispanic culture, that’s the authoritative figure, and you don’t question the faculty member. What we’re saying is you’re not questioning, you’re asking for help, for guidance.
I say help, and that’s a key thing because semantics really matter, especially with Hispanic males.
This was my dissertation topic. There’s a real resistance in the Hispanic male population to ask for help. We change the conversation and say, “You’re not asking for help, you’re getting the most out of your tuition. You paid for these services, use them.”
Q: What else have you done to keep students on campus, aside from work, study and clubs and organizations?
At South Texas, we developed a student leadership academy. Teaching leadership, teaching students to give back to their community and to do community service. It’s something I really believe in. We started with 17, and this last year we graduated about 150 in the last class.
Q: So you want to do that here?
Q: What do most students do after leaving South Texas College?
We’re about 60/40. About 60 percent transfer to another academic institution and about 80 percent of them go to UT Pan American. I’m sure it’s similar between EPCC and UTEP, if not higher.
The 40 percent are in programs geared for the workforce. They’re in one-year certificates or the two-year associate applied science program, and their intent is to go straight into their careers – high wage, high skill jobs. Nursing is probably the most obvious. They go straight to great-paying jobs.
You have not changed just one student. When graduation comes, they bring 10, 15 or 20 family members. The whole family is graduating.
Q: What is the graduation rate at EPCC and how does it stack up with community colleges nationally?
I’m not sure what the rates are at EPCC. But at South Texas College, 86 percent of the graduates are not part of the graduation rate. So, they base our graduation rate on 14 percent of the total graduates. It’s just the way the rates work. To count, you have to be a first-time, full-time student with a declared major who’s straight out of high school. If you don’t meet any of those qualifications and you don’t make it within three years, you’re not part of the graduation rate.
Community colleges have lobbied at the national level, worked to inform policy-makers that this really doesn’t measure what we do.
Q: Don’t you have a problem with that?
I have no problem with accountability, and I worked very hard to bring up our graduation rate at South Texas where we actually have the highest graduation among the large community colleges in Texas. Our graduation rate is 17.5 percent. Not acceptable.
Q: Do you think the state’s commitment to higher education and particularly to community colleges is adequate and appropriate?
In higher ed, we never feel that we’re adequately funded. I think in fairness we need to thank the state for its commitment to education. But we have to make sure the state understands the community college mission and what we’re dealing with.
We can’t just sit back and say we understand the state is going to cut our funding. We have to make sure the state understands that we are a very wise investment.
Q: A lot of people are saying a four-year college education isn’t worth the price anymore, or the debt. Your thoughts?
I’m a firm believer in higher education. I believe that all the national data show – and we can find the outliers that don’t pay off – but by and large, a baccalaureate degree over the course of a lifetime is worth a little over $1 million more than just a high school diploma.
I firmly believe all students need higher education. I think they need at least a year for a certificate, to get the taste of higher education, go and do a job and realize, I need more.
Now when you speak of debt, we have to do our best to keep the price of tuition and fees as low as we can and ensure our students are wise with debt.
Q: Your dissertation sounds interesting. Would you say a little more about it?
I focused on a phenomenon that lay largely undiscovered or unresearched. When you’re doing a dissertation, you’re trying to find a gap in the research. I looked at Hispanic males.
The concern is the number of males already not engaging in higher education. As a group, we average 10.2 years of education – less than a junior in high school.
The numbers are 10, five, three and one for Hispanics as a whole. Ten Hispanic children start kindergarten together, five of them graduate from high school, three go to college and one graduates from college.
We have national goals. President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative. The Lumina Foundation’s Big Goal. The Gates Foundation. All of these have these goals of getting the U.S. back to the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. We cannot reach that goal without this population, and we cannot reach that goal without the males.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.