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Guest Column: Seven Breakthrough Distractions

If we are serious about higher ed reform, state lawmakers, our colleges and universities and the business community must work together and lead, not bury ourselves in lofty rhetorical arguments or burden our education system with misguided micromanagement.

Bill Hammond is the CEO of the Texas Association of Business.

Some call them “seven breakthrough solutions” to transform college education to new heights, while others deride them as the “seven deadly sins” certain to damn our higher education system to mediocrity. I’m more inclined to describe the whole debate as a dangerous distraction. Much of what we’re hearing about Texas’ higher education system is nothing more than some very passionate noise — a distraction from our core focus and the present battle we must wage and win.

I surely am not the only one that sees reforming higher education as not about being left or right; conservative or liberal; public or private; or, publish or perish.
 
If we are serious about higher ed reform, state lawmakers, our colleges and universities and the business community must work together and lead, not bury ourselves in lofty rhetorical arguments or burden our education system with misguided micromanagement. Together, we must drive the right kinds of reform that put more Texas students on the path to higher education, to earning a meaningful degree and ultimately to contributing to the future prosperity of our state as qualified members of the Texas workforce.
 
Texas repeatedly earns the top spot among cities and state rankings for business climate and job creation — yet if we do not immediately address the funding and structural reforms necessary to improve our graduation rates, reduce our dependence on developmental education and graduate more Texans with advanced degrees or certificates, we will surely falter.
 
The jobs of today – and even more so, the jobs of tomorrow – will not only prefer but require degrees from institutions of higher learning. That’s a fact. By 2018, the Business Roundtable estimates that 63 percent of new or replacement jobs in the United States will require at least some college education, while 45 percent will require at least a bachelor’s degree. Now look at Texas, and you can start to appreciate my concern. Today, just over 30 percent of Texans aged 25-34 hold an associate's degree or higher.
 
The volume of the debate over the value of research, teaching and tenure is rising to a crescendo. State lawmakers this spring pulled out their classic songbook to respond, forming a committee to defend our universities against these real or perceived threats to higher education.
 
In this brouhaha of academia versus the marketplace, we must do a better job representing the very people that matter most here: the taxpayers who fund public universities, the students who attend and, the job creators that rely on quality graduates who are workforce ready for the 21st century, knowledge-based, global economy that surrounds us.
 
Our focus as business leaders is singular, and we're resolute in our intensity and dedication to the cause: It’s all about completions. An increase of just 1 percent in graduation rates for associate's or bachelor’s degrees would produce a cumulative increase in national income of $291 billion by the year 2030, according to the Springboard Project.
 
Only about half of Texas students who enroll in a university today eventually graduate, and on average it takes 5.3 years to achieve a 4-year degree. Under those circumstances, we cannot expect to stay competitive in business and job creation.
 
That’s why, in the 82nd Legislative Session, the Texas Association of Business and its members led efforts to advance meaningful reform aimed at one goal: completion, increasing the number of students who enroll and complete college coursework and ultimately obtain adegree. Our “Prerequisite for Continued Prosperity” report and conference, in the fall of 2010, laid the groundwork for what would become the most substantial and, frankly, most meaningful reforms we saw in higher education this session.
 
Business led the charge on developmental education reforms. We were front and center calling for reforms to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Texas GRANTS program through the creation of a priority model for low-income student access to our colleges and universities (SB 28). We laid down the gauntlet, in our defense of HB 9, to tie part of institutional funding to student outcomes, rather than simply enrollments.
 
Yes, we can and must do more to address completion rates, and along the way we very much can and should ensure accountability for our tax dollars. That’s something on which I hope both sides of the “seven distractions” debate can agree. 

Bill Hammond is President and CEO of the Texas Association of Business.

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