How Austin, Texas Increased College Applications 15% in Five Years

American K-12 schooling is in need of major improvements, and business can play a valuable role in retooling school systems for the new century. Austin, Texas is a powerful example of a business community taking a tough posture with local independent school districts. 

Recognizing the need to cultivate homegrown talent capable of performing in the 21st century economy, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has played the role of critical customer, wielding its market position to promote quality.

“For a while now, we’ve been working on short term talent development effort, but there’s good understanding among the business community that you’ve got to have a longer term strategy as well,” says Drew Scheberle, Senior Vice President for Education and Talent Development at The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

By establishing an education task force, supporting government funding, encouraging measurable goals for reform, and continually providing clear data on graduation rates, college and career readiness, and student performance, the Chamber has been able to implement improvements toward bridging the disparity between high–and low–performing schools.

Working with school districts or policymakers doesn’t mean carrying their water; it means settling on shared objectives and pursuing them jointly, Scheberle notes. “We had to have the moment when [Austin Independent School District] knew we were willing to walk away. We gave them a list of non-negotiables [and] said, ‘If you want [our support], then you have to do these things. If you don’t, we’re out.’”

The result: a dramatic increase in the number of Austin-area high school seniors applying to and enrolling in college, with 62% submitting the Texas Common Application in 2011, up from 47% in 2006.

However, the Austin Chamber would like to see college enrollment rates go up even further and is working tirelessly with the area’s 15 independent school districts to raise those rates another 5%. Based upon the Austin Chamber’s annual survey of graduates, 90% say they plan to enroll in higher education. However, research from the University of Texas at Austin Ray Marshall Center shows that actual direct from high school-to-collage enrollment falls at about 62% -- roughly 10% below the national average. “We’re working to address that gap,” says Gilbert Zavala, vice president of education and talent development.

The Austin Chamber is working with school districts this summer to retain 19 counselors to help recent graduates complete the college application process. The counselors will be on hand to guide students through the final hurdles to college, which can be as small as making sure they have the proper immunization documents submitted or being aware of deadlines to register for placement tests or orientation. “Until now, the counselor’s job ended with the last day of school. The Chamber successfully secured funding to extend the time graduating seniors will have with a counselor to successfully transition them to post-secondary education,” Scheberle said.

As tough, independent consumers, the Chamber’s business leaders are helping the school districts achieve their college enrollment goals by providing transparent data, expertise, and sustained pressure to do better.

Scheberle said the Chamber’s shift reflected a basic tenet of private sector management: “If a business hires a person to do a job, we want to talk about outcomes to determine whether the job is being performed effectively. As taxpayers, we deserve to know if our money is being used to achieve a set of outcomes.”

Read more case studies on local chambers making a difference in education in the U.S. Chamber report: Partnership Is a Two-Way Street: What It Takes for Business to Help Drive School Reform

Sheryll Poe is Senior Writer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.