CENTRAL TEXAS (KXAN) — In recent years, schools within Central Texas and across the state have improved their high school graduation rates. But with skyrocketing inflation levels and increased costs of living, several organizations are turning their attention toward post-secondary educational attainments and where those gaps lie.

Data compiled by the Austin-based education collaborative E3 Alliance found students without any form of post-secondary education — a credential, an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree — have only a 12% chance of earning a living wage. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s been an additional 11% drop in post-secondary enrollment for students statewide, said Jennifer Saenz, senior director of E3 Alliance’s post-secondary strategic initiatives.

“We know that there’s a lot of initiatives being put in place to ensure that our students in the K-12 space are ready to enter college or post-secondary work,” she said. “But we’re not seeing that enrollment persistence and completion on the post-secondary side.”

Within post-secondary educational attainment, data compiled by E3 Alliance noted discrepancies impacting lower-income students and students of color. It’s an educational gap E3 Alliance and the coalition Austin 2030 Network are zeroing in on, working on strategies to strengthen post-secondary opportunities for all students.

E3 Alliance and the Social Good Fund — which oversees the Austin 2030 Network — were named recipients of funding from the St. David’s Foundation. A combined $450,000 was awarded to the two organizations to fund their research into the causes behind post-secondary attainment gaps and research into ways to close those discrepancies.

“[They’re] all coming together to say, ‘Hey, this is not okay.’ Our rates in Austin are, we have gross inequities with regards to low-income, Black and Hispanic students enrolling, persisting and completing in post-secondary programs,” said Melissa Chavez, network lead for the Austin 2030 Network.

The Austin 2030 Network coalition will comprise community leaders across the education sector, including Austin Community College, Austin ISD and Central Texas Workforce Solutions. E3 Alliance will then compile analyses on regional post-secondary attainment to help identify possible initiatives to try and redress the issue.

Similar to Austin 2030 Network’s work with community partners, E3 Alliance will also work with experts in the health care and housing spaces, along with students and families to identify institutional issues, Saenz said.

“That action stems from a group of diverse experts really coming around that data to understand what is not working for students, what are those barriers,” she added. “Typically, it ends up being, whether it’s local or state level policy, that really needs to be impacted, that is creating that barrier for our students of low-income households and our students of color.”

With Austin’s ever-increasing costs of living and affordability concerns, each said this issue is especially timely. Some area municipalities, including the City of Austin and Travis County, have implemented $20 minimum wages to more closely mirror a living wage required to live in Central Texas.

But with many companies and sectors in Texas still offering minimum wages below the $20 threshold, both Chavez and Saenz said it’s important to rethink the narrative surrounding post-secondary education and extend it beyond a four-year degree.

“We need more people to understand that the value that those associates and credentials can provide students and their economic mobility and the future for them,” she said.