Texas A&M System Launches EmpowerU Website

Chancellor of the Texas A&M System John Sharp discusses conference realignment with Evan Smith at TribLive on September 29, 2011.
Chancellor of the Texas A&M System John Sharp discusses conference realignment with Evan Smith at TribLive on September 29, 2011.

Texas A&M University System officials will unveil EmpowerU, their new public accountability website on Monday morning, at a news conference in the Capitol.

The initiative, to gather comprehensive data on all system institutions and package it in a user-friendly manner online, has been in the works for more than a year. After all that time and effort, A&M System Chancellor John Sharp is expecting the site to inspire a significant reaction in Texas and beyond.

"I don’t think anybody in the country has anything like this," he told the Tribune. "I think this is going to be the model that everyone builds on."

The project that became EmpowerU — the system has trademarked the name — began in June 2011. A&M System Regent Elaine Mendoza, who has been leading the effort, said that was when she took a hard look at statistics she described as "quite sobering."

In 2004, about 13,500 students entered the Texas A&M University System for the first time. By 2010, only 8,600 graduated with a bachelor's degree or higher. She said the roughly 4,900 students who didn't make it to the finish line had received about $51.5 million in financial aid. About $24.7 million of state revenue was spent on those students, who had not acquired a credential but had garnered an average of $11,000 in debt.

"They are hard numbers to look at and admit to," Mendoza told the Tribune, "but the first thing we had to do was admit that we had a problem so that we could solve it."

A change in mindset was in order, she said, and that included airing their dirty laundry in public rather than trying to hide it. The idea of the website was hatched.

It's not the first accountability website for a university system in the state. The University of Texas System released one in December of 2011. Texas A&M University also released its institution-specific site in May 2012, and EmpowerU actually uses the same software.

But this newest model offers some features those do not. Most of the information is represented in bar graphs, and on many of them, a red line indicates where that system has set its goal for 2015. "Everybody understands is that they will be held accountable for meeting these goals," Sharp said. "The one thing we don’t tell them is how to reach them."

Sharp recalled that many of the initial meetings with administrators of the universities in the system about the plan to put unflattering data online for the public to easily review were a bit tense. "There was a lot of screaming," he said, adding that moods improved as it became understood that institutions would set their own goals, decide how to meet them, and even choose their own peer institutions to benchmark against. 

"Unlike some others, this is not a top-down deal where the chancellor brings everybody in the room and says here’s how it’s going to be," Sharp said. "This was a laborious, collaborative process."

Mendoza said it was important that each institution be measured in a way that was appropriate for the region and population it served. She also said EmpowerU would help foster better coordination and practices throughout the education pipelines in each region, because it tracks data on students from before they reach college and to when they are in the workforce.

The site will also try to tackle elements of the college experience that often go unmeasured. Most data on the site comes from either the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board or the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

"But there is some data that we find very interesting and essential and important that neither of them collects," said James Hallmark, the system's vice chancellor for academic affairs, noting that much of that extra data has to do with student engagement and learning outcomes to measure what students are getting out of their investment in college.

Mendoza indicated that the site would be updated with data as it became available instead of waiting for it to be verified by the coordinating board, which can go back and tweak it later if necessary. "It will be uncertified data, we understand that," she said, "but it will be current, and that is important if we want to address these issues."

House Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who is expected to be at Monday's news conference along with other lawmakers and higher education officials, has been advocating for a quicker turn-around time in the state's data processing for years. He told the Tribune he was encouraged by the trend of the university systems putting more data online.

"What we want and what people want is to have data on a more real-time basis," he said recently. "That's the way life is now."

Branch has also been pushing for more state funding based on outcomes like graduations rather than based simply on enrollment, as it is now. It is widely believed that this shift could happen in the next legislative session, and it seems the architects of EmpowerU have the same sense. They've included a menu of metrics related to "outcome funding."

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