Texas lagging in higher education attainment, commissioner warns

Nov 30, 2017
Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes delivered his state of higher education address Thursday at the Crowne Plaza Austin hotel. RALPH K.M. HAURWITZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The chief executive of the state’s higher education agency summed up the challenge of educating a mostly poor, college-age population with 10 words Thursday: “We’re getting better, but we’re not getting better fast enough.”

It is a theme that Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes has sounded since he was named to the position in 2004, but it was delivered in his annual address on the state of higher education in tones approaching fiery — and not just because he was nursing a cold that made his voice a tad raspy.

“The Texas paradox of the moment,” Paredes said, is that the state has a very youthful population. “This is a huge economic advantage for Texas, but only if we educate these young people, who are mostly poor and Latino. The population in Texas that is growing fastest is the portion of the population that is least well educated.”

Paredes, the chief executive of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said school administrators and faculty members should expand academic advising to keep students on track, offer competency-based courses that let students progress at their own pace and adopt other innovations. He railed against the tendency of colleges and universities to expand academic offerings instead of improving existing ones.

“We are expanding academic programs faster than the Legislature is even willing or able to support appropriately,” he told higher education leaders meeting for two days at the Crowne Plaza Austin hotel. “Unless we put a brake on expansion of programs, we are going to dilute the limited resources we have still more, and that’s a certain recipe for statewide mediocrity. Frankly, we have an awful lot of mediocre academic programs in Texas.”

The overarching goal of the state’s higher education strategy, adopted in 2015 by the coordinating board and dubbed 60x30TX (pronounced 60 by 30 Tex), is for at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 to have a certificate or degree by 2030. That age group is considered an indicator of the economic future of the state and its ability to remain globally competitive.

“Right now, we won’t come anywhere close to achieving the goals of 60 by 30,” Paredes said, noting that last year 41 percent of that age group held a postsecondary credential. That’s up 0.7 points from the 40.3 percent baseline in 2015, but the increase needs to be 1.3 percentage points a year to meet the goal, he said.

The commissioner offered recommendations that ranged from the simple and obvious to the politically fraught.

An example of the former: Professors should schedule office hours immediately after class when questions are fresh in students’ minds “so they won’t think two days later, ‘should I go see this guy? I don’t think so.’”

An example of the latter: Enact legislation that would link a portion of public universities’ funding to graduation rates. The Legislature has already done so for community colleges and technical colleges, but it has balked for years at doing so for universities because of resistance from the four-year schools, some of which fear their funding would go down.

“It’s time to get this done,” Paredes said, noting that 33 states have adopted so-called outcomes-based funding.

The commissioner urged faculty members to be willing to offer competency-based courses, complaining that some are reluctant to do the work needed to structure their classes that way. He said professors also should take attendance and require tutoring for students who need it instead of merely recommending that they get extra help.

Students are not “magically transformed into adults” in the three months between graduating from high school and starting college, he said. “We need to expand summer bridge programs both for transfer students and incoming students.”