AUSTIN (KXAN) — A local nonprofit announced a bold goal for higher education: to double the number of low-income Central Texas students graduating from college in five years.

At an event Thursday at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, Austin nonprofit Breakthrough Central Texas kicked off what they’re calling the “Breakthrough Challenge,” a campaign to raise $10 million dollars in an effort to make a significant increase in the number of students who are the first in their family to graduate from college.

The nonprofit said the goal is to enroll an additional 1,400 students in their programs and to create an endowment fund to keep the program running for years to come.

Breakthrough CTX announced that they’ve already received a significant chunk of the donations they’ll need to make that goal possible, since this campaign started they have raised $7 million.

This effort to increase resources to low-income and first-generation students is underscored by data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board which shows that the number of low-income students who graduate from college in the Austin region lags behind the rest of the state.

According to THECB’s analysis of a group of eighth graders over the course of eleven years, only 9% of economically disadvantaged students in the Austin region who enroll in higher education wind up completing their degree — the lowest rate of any region in Texas.

A map based on data from a cohort of Texas 8th graders depicts the percentages by region of economically disadvantaged students in Texas who enrolled in higher education and completed their degree. (Image from Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board) .

When you look at all students in the Austin region regardless of their economic background, their completion rate of higher education is 24% according to the THECB’s numbers, which is more in line with the range (19-26%) of the other regions in the state.

Breakthrough CTX, who offers support to students who will be the first in their families to attend college, says that students who use their programs graduate college at seven times the rate of their peers. Over the course of the nonprofit’s existence, it has helped 150 students graduate from college and has 1900 more students in their programs currently on track to graduate.

Breakthrough makes a 12-year commitment to help these students become the first in their families to graduate from college, beginning working with them in the sixth grade to assist in preparing for, applying to, enrolling in, and completing college.

For recent college graduate Joe Anthony Cruz, Breakthrough played a major role in his ability to get into and navigate college. His recent degree from Ithaca college makes him first in his family to graduate from college.

“I grew up here in Austin, on the historic east side, predominantly black and brown community, the prospect for going to college didn’t always look so great,” Cruz said.

He later explained to the attendees at Thursday’s announcement, “from an early age, I witnessed the debilitating effects of inequity on so many in my neighborhood,” he said. “For me and my friends, going to college was not a given, I saw over and over talented young people just like myself, failing to realize their potential, not because of a poor work ethic or the lack of a loving family, but because of real barriers that they face on their educational path.”

“Growing up in Austin, we have all of these universities, and it is a big college town but sometimes the access to those universities isn’t always there for us, ” Cruz explained to KXAN. “We have to overcome hurdles like going to work maybe instead of choosing to do maybe pre-AP classes or extracurricular activities.”

Starting in sixth grade, he began working with Breakthrough.

“In middle schools, it was really the formative years of that process, I was in the summer programs that were kind of like a summer school opportunity, I met friends that have lasted until today,” Cruz said.

Breakthrough helped him pursue his passions in the fine arts and secure a full-ride to go to Ithaca College.

“Once I got there, and still had those cultural and those struggles of just being first-generation college student, not knowing how to be an advocate for myself — sometimes being the only first-generation student in the classroom as Ithaca was a private school — it was really far away from home, not having the resources to maybe see my family so often, ” Cruz recalled. “So I really had to lean on Breakthrough and ask Breakthrough for help throughout the entire process.”

As a college graduate, he now works at Breakthrough through AmeriCorps a college applications counselor. He has been accepted to a Ph.D. fellowship at Harvard Graduate School of Design but he is also weighing the possibility of a career in law.

Grace Holland, Breakthrough’s Chief Development Officer, explained that this challenge will also enable the nonprofit to eventually make even greater expansions in the scale of support they’re able to offer.

“We help students academically, so in middle school we have an intensive six-week academic summer program as well as year-round academic support that happens outside of the classroom, ” Holland explained. “We provide leadership skill opportunities, we provide a personalized adviser, every one of our students has an advisor that is there for them to guide them along the complicated path to college and also just be there if anything goes wrong.”

Texas State Senator Kirk Watson announces Breakthrough Central Texas’ Breakthrough Challenge which aims to double the number of Central Texas students who are the first generation in their family to go to college. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“In Central Texas, we have the lowest college graduation rate in the state among students from under-resourced communities,” said Texas State Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) who spoke at the announcement Thursday. “We are not doing what we ought to be doing, not just for our employers or our communities, but for those people who need a little boost to be all that they can be. The Breakthrough Challenge is our opportunity to make a difference.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 12, 2019 as “Breakthrough Day” in honor of this announcement.

Austin-based company National Instruments has also agreed to donate $10 any time someone posts the hashtag #BreakthroughChallenge on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.