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Guest Column: The 2010 Agenda: Higher Education

Low-income and minority students have every right to expect the same level of educational excellence experienced by their peers in more affluent settings. We literally cannot succeed without setting high expectations for them and fully developing their talents.

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“Massification” and democratization of higher education are terms you don’t frequently hear in the U.S., but they’re quite commonly used in countries across the world. Nations ranging from Korea to Jordan to Chile increasingly recognize that their participation in the global economy of the 21st century will require educating more of their citizens to a higher level, and public policies and funding are targeted toward building higher education capacity. 

In the United Kingdom and Australia, for example, there is a growing effort to broaden higher education participation well beyond the students served by historically elite universities. Enormous expansion of university capacities in India and China is driving the explosive growth of those economies; at the same time, it is reducing the flow of international students, many of them in science and technology fields, to U.S. universities and eventually the U.S. workplace. 

U.S. higher education has also begun to focus greater attention on educating a broader population, recognizing that our country will not be able to compete globally without a better educated workforce. Specific targets for increasing the percentage of the U.S. population that must complete at least a bachelor’s degree have been proposed by educators, corporate leaders and public officials, including the President. Given current population demographics, there is growing recognition that these targets can only be achieved if universities enroll and graduate students from groups (especially Hispanics and African Americans) who have historically been underrepresented in U.S. higher education.

In Texas, this same 21st century workforce competitiveness theme has been promoted through an initiative called “Closing the Gaps.” Ten years ago, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) set targets for increasing the number of Texans who participate and graduate from the state’s universities. The THECB also recognized that achieving these goals in the context of the state’s rapidly changing demographics would require specific efforts to increase the participation and success of Hispanics and African Americans who continue to be underrepresented on Texas university campuses, and specific targets were set for them.

One curious aspect of the “Closing the Gaps” conversation is how little it has been associated with another and more recent Texas initiative to promote the development of additional national research (“Tier One”) universities in the state. Although both these higher education initiatives claim to be designed to help Texas become a more competitive player in the 21st century global economy, there appears to be little or no connection between the two. In fact, a commitment to educating large numbers of low-income and minority students is viewed as incompatible with the quest for excellence expected of a “Tier One” university.  In other words, there is a widespread assumption that all universities must make a choice between access and excellence in defining their institutional missions and planning their future development. 

As president of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), one of the seven “Emerging Tier One” institutions designated by the Texas Legislature, I have often been told that seeking the excellence expected for “Tier One” status will require us to retreat from the strong student access and affordability commitments that UTEP has made during the past 20 years.  Even our El Paso community’s pride in UTEP’s designation as one of the seven “Emerging Tier One” universities is tempered with concern that this Tier One quest may weaken our resolve to create educational opportunities for young people and working adults in this undereducated U.S.-Mexico border region. The concept of a Hispanic-majority “Tier One” university apparently goes well beyond the limits of our collective imagination.

In Texas — and indeed across the U.S. — higher education is locked in a traditional model better suited to the mid-20th century America than today.  Demographics have shifted dramatically, driven largely by the rapid growth of the Hispanic population, and it’s time to recognize that low-income and minority students have every right to expect the same level of educational excellence experienced by their peers in more affluent settings. Texas’ future prosperity resides in these undereducated segments of our population. We literally cannot succeed without setting high expectations for them and fully developing their talents.

UTEP’s responsibility to its students and to the State of Texas is to demonstrate that a commitment to both access and excellence — to both “Closing the Gaps” and “Tier One” goals—can and must be achieved. We have been highly successful over the past 20 years in building research and doctoral program capacity while maintaining our strong access commitment to first-generation, low-income and mostly Hispanic students, who also happen to be highly talented. We intend to continue to build on that success to achieve our Tier One goal, for and with the UTEP students we serve, not in spite of them. They — and Texas — should expect nothing less.

Diana Natalicio has been president of The University of Texas at El Paso since 1988.

                

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