A New Website Developed at UT is Leveling the Playing Field for Texas Students

Before we meet for coffee on a summer afternoon, Michelle Snyder is showing a high school student how to set up a bank account. “She didn’t know if she needed both a checking and savings account,” Snyder says. Other days, Snyder’s job means helping a student find a place to sleep at night. Her business card reads, “College and Career Counselor” at Crockett High School in Austin, but often the focus is just getting students to graduation.

In Texas, the average high school counselor has a caseload of 450 students. On any given day, a counselor might be facing behavioral issues, punishments, grade checks, and class scheduling. College and career planning is a necessary but often overwhelming next step.

“You don’t go into counseling to screw up anybody’s life,” Snyder laughs. “How do we help these kids? Counselors are afraid. We don’t want to tell them the wrong thing.”

Most counselors take a course or two in college and career planning, but it’s often not a major part of their education, leaving many unprepared. That’s where UT’s Texas OnCourse comes in. The new website is a hub of information for educators, with an academy of comprehensive modules about college and career paths, as well as offering many resources for students and families.

The website came about in response to House Bill 5, created in 2013. The bill added a new layer of stress for high schoolers, requiring them to choose an endorsement (“a meta major”) in the hopes of better preparing them for college. Upon entering ninth grade, students must choose between business and industry, STEM, arts and humanities, public service, and multidisciplinary. Snyder was only one year into her career as a counselor when it went into effect for the 2014-2015 school year.

“It was like a bomb dropped,” she says. “You could see it on everyone’s faces. Suddenly it was, ‘Hey counselors, go talk to every single incoming ninth grader about what they want to do with their life.’”

Harrison Keller, deputy to President Greg Fenves for strategy and policy, says schools were struggling to handle the changes, many just defaulting to multidisciplinary endorsements. “This was a tremendous amount of change for the education system to absorb,” he says. “The state was wrestling with a lot of complex issues on how to implement this for such a massive system.”

With approximately 1.5 million students in Texas high schools, the legislature needed a large-scale solution to help schools, educators, and families. They turned to Keller—not surprising, considering his 20-plus years of experience in public and higher education policy. “They said, ‘Here’s an issue we’re wrestling with, what do you recommend?’”

Keller’s answer was Texas OnCourse. He believed the website would be the most sustainable and accessible platform for reaching educators and families across the state, all in a measurable way that allows UT to track progress. Keller’s recommendations became officially known as House Bill 18 (named for the class of 2018, the first to graduate under House Bill 5).

After partnering with 2,500 counselors in Texas to pilot and perfect academy modules, the site went live in September 2017. “What we built is the most comprehensive digital learning initiative in the nation,” Keller boasts. He has thousands of educators in Texas backing him up. Texas OnCourse’s original goal of reaching 5,000 educators in one year was quickly surpassed, and in just 10 months, more than 8,000 were using the academy program.

Snyder helped consult on the original pilot and is now part of the fellowship program, serving as a “brand ambassador,” and offering help to other counselors. She says the response to the program has been “wildly impressive.” More than two-thirds of Texas school districts are now represented on the website.

“We call it a one-stop shop,” she says. “Now all of this information is in one place and it’s all vetted and updated. If that can save me even just 30 minutes, that’s 30 minutes I can spend with another student.”

That 30 minutes may be all the time a counselor has when a student walks in asking for information on military academies or NCAA eligibility. “I might tell a student, ‘Okay come back after lunch,’ and then get on that module on the academy to figure out what they need,” she says.

For Keller, Texas OnCourse’s most impressive feat goes beyond the website itself. Shortly after HB 18 was passed, Gov. Greg Abbott, BBA ’81, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, created the Tri-Agency Commission, pulling together the Texas Workforce Commission, the Texas Education Agency, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Part of Texas OnCourse’s task was to coordinate with the new commission, which required elaborate teamwork.

“This is a rare example of how things can go right,” Keller says. “We’ve been getting inquiries from other states that are interested in what Texas is working on. You don’t see other examples of a flagship university and a legislature and state agencies working together. The infrastructure is pretty robust.”

While the Texas House was focused on educators, the Senate was more interested in reaching students and families. Texas OnCourse starts with middle schoolers. A “Pokemon-style game” called Middle Galaxy exposes them to a variety of careers and the skills and knowledge required.

For high schoolers, MapMyGrad offers a Buzzfeed-like quiz about their interests to help students pick an endorsement. It also shows the courses offered at their specific high school, so students can create a course plan to take to their counselor.

“It elevates the conversation,” Snyder says. “Texas OnCourse is taking all of this information that was in my head and putting it out there. So if, heaven forbid, your counselor is out sick one day, you can still find the information you need.”

The website is expanding the range of adults that a student can turn to for help. “The kids tend to register for the SAT in the library, so let’s give the librarian the SAT/ACT module,” Snyder says. “Let’s give our economics teacher the FASFA modules, and give our coaches the NCAA eligibility portal.” Texas OnCourse’s second-year goal is to create more modules specifically for parents.

The driving belief is that helping students create a vision of the future as early as possible will better equip them for success. Of course, success doesn’t have to mean attending UT (as much as we might like to believe it does) or even a four-year school at all. Texas OnCourse prepares counselors to advise students who want to go straight to a career, a trade school, or to a two- or four-year college. One resource on the site, called Share Your Road, aims to inspire students by allowing anyone to share their own story about how they ended up in their profession.

Keller believes the website fulfills President Fenves’ goal of unlocking potential for the state.

“Part of our charter as a university is to help drive and expand educational and economic opportunities for the state,” Keller says. “We can unlock potential for students, no matter where they are. They can be in the most remote parts of the state and get access to the same quality information as a student in a top high school.”

As Texas OnCourse engages with hundreds of districts across the state, Keller says this level of community involvement is uncommon for a leading research university. “That’s something that we take for granted at UT because it’s so much a part of the culture here. We underappreciate how important that is for the state, and just how unique.”

For Snyder, the greatest benefit is simple. “I’m a fountain of all knowledge for these students, and all I could do before was Google things,” she says. “At the very smallest level, if counselors can just be sure that the information they’re giving out is accurate, that makes Texas OnCourse successful.”

Illustration by Brian Stauffer


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