By Tinu Thomas
Eri Longoria is a finance student at the University of Texas from Mission, Texas. His hometown was recently ranked the third least educated in the U.S. Longoria said he felt the effects of coming from a poor and uneducated city when he started college at UT.
“I sit down in a classroom and everyone looks different from me – the way they dress, the way they act,” Longoria said. “I came from a single mother who had to take care of four sons. She had to do all that by herself so there wasn’t really a lot of space for me to go to a camp where I just studied math all day every day or practiced my ACT’s.”
But according to an annual report from RGV Focus, an education-focused collective impact initiative in the Rio Grande Valley, education in the Valley has been improving rapidly since Longoria left for college in 2015. Within the last 10 years, test scores of students in grades K-12 in Valley cities have gone up drastically. Students from elementary to high school are now on par with students in larger metro cities like Dallas and more high school students are graduating at higher levels of college readiness.
Students aren’t taking jobs in their hometowns after they graduate from college, however. That may be why the percent of adults with college degrees has remained low in these areas.
Where The Jobs Are
The data that listed Longoria’s hometown as one of the least educated in the nation was determined by looking at where the most educated people in America were putting their degrees to work. It made sense that in Texas, the Austin-Round Rock area – a hub for technology, business and entrepreneurship – was where most educated people looked for work. But cities in the Valley actually have more job openings.
According to an article by Ray Perryman of the Perryman Group, an economic and financial analysis group, the metropolitan areas of McAllen-Edinburg and Mission are expected to lead job growth in Texas over the next 20 years. This growth is primarily due to maquiladoras or larger companies across the U.S. that come to South Texas to do business and manufacture in Mexico.
These factories rely on cheap labor from Mexico, but many of their higher-ups are located in South Texas, where they can keep a close eye on the companies from the U.S.
New Faces Around Town
Bitty Turan taught high school in Brownsville, Texas, for two decades and is now a retired insurance agent. She says she’s watched students get more opportunities to pursue higher education over the years.
“A lot of my students went to college and did very well,” she said. “I think they had a good support system and financial aid; I think most of them were on financial aid.”
Turan is also a witness to the fact that students leave the Valley for college and don’t come back.
“A lot of them that leave, I haven’t seen many come back,” Turan said. “Once in a while there’s a few that they’re retiring already and they come back, or a spouse died and they come back, or their parent has failing health and they come back.”
For Turan, students not returning means outsiders taking jobs there.
“Brownsville’s getting kind of big,” she said. “It used to be you’d go anywhere and you’d know everybody or at least somebody. And now I can go to H-E-B and not know anybody.”
Turan said because students from the Valley are pursuing careers in places like Austin rather than putting their degrees to work in their hometowns, the culture in Brownsville and other cities is becoming more Tex-Mex than Mex.
“Most of the time it’s a culture shock for them,” Turan said about the businessmen who take supervisor positions in border cities. “They might have some Hispanic workers in Detroit or wherever they’re from, but then here, everyone’s Hispanic.”
The population of the Rio Grande Valley is predominantly Hispanic or Latino, at 88-99 percent across all four counties that make up the region. Most of the business people don’t make an effort to learn Spanish or about the culture of the Valley, Turan said, and many of them don’t stay for long before being replaced.
“We used to say the maquiladora wives – when they came with their families, that the wives didn’t like it and they never unpacked,” Turan said.
‘A Brain Drain’
Longoria, who had a difficult time assimilating into Austin, said he understands why many students go away to college and don’t come back.
“[The Valley] has one of the lowest rates of education in the country for a reason,” Longoria said. “It’s kind of a brain drain. Once you go back, you kind of get stuck there.
Longoria plans to stay in Austin after her graduates and promises to visit his mom on holidays.