Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes told reporters Tuesday that the state was coming to "the painful realization that improving access is not enough" and that the time had come to "reinvent public higher education."
His remarks were made on a conference call in anticipation of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's release of its annual progress report on a 10-year-old initiative focused on bringing educational achievement levels in Texas up to parity with comparable states — or "closing the gaps," as its referred to — by 2015.
Paredes said that, based on the current rates of improvement, Texans will have a "mostly positive story to tell" when the deadline hits in four years, though it won't meet all of its targets.
The state is ahead of its 2010 targets for its two chief goals: increasing success (the number of degrees conferred) and participation (the number of Texans enrolling) in higher education, especially the latter. With record numbers of Texans signing up for colleges and universities, the emphasis has increasingly been on getting those students through the system with degrees. The state's current overall six-year graduation rate is only slightly more than 57 percent.
Still, there are significant lags in participation among some groups, particularly Hispanics and African-American males, and success rates in both the Hispanic and African-American communities are also below target.
Some remaining gaps are so significant that there is virtually no chance of them being closed in the next few years. Notable among these, with significant ramifications for the state's future, is the number of teacher certifications, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, which are well below target.
"I don't think there's any question that we'd like to be successful in every area of Closing the Gaps," Paredes said, acknowledging that that would not ultimately be the case despite what he generally described as "substantial and significant progress."
The coordinating board is currently in the process of developing a new plan to implement the "Closing the Gaps" initiative ends in four years. Paredes said it would focus on making Texas a higher education leader, and it would do more than simply adopt more ambitious targets in the same areas as the current initiative.
"We want to place more emphasis on innovation," Paredes said. In his vision, Texas would also become a leader in areas like cost efficiency, continuous improvement and offering various pathways to degrees — including low-cost options. Paredes has previously said that a $10,000 bachelor's degree, as proposed by Gov. Rick Perry, is "entirely feasible." The actual plan won't be released until closer to 2015.
In the meantime, there will be another legislative session. Paredes shared some of the priorities he is preparing for 2013. These include creating a comprehensive system that allows students to attain four-year degrees by starting in community colleges and transferring, restructuring financial aid, improving developmental education, continuing to push for the implementation of outcomes-based funding, and better aligning college outputs with workforce needs.
Admission standards need to take into account a university's ability to actually help the students it admits succeed, Paredes said. And students should be encouraged to consider the future needs and opportunities of the job market when they select a major.
As for the need to reconsider the financial aid process, Paredes noted that the state's main need-based aid program, known as TEXAS Grants, recently suffered a budget cut for the first time — immediately following an increase in higher ed enrollments last fall of 84,000, the second-largest in the state's history.
Some view the cuts as an opportunity for reinvention. "We must not use this relative decline in state funding to say that we cannot do anything differently right now," Paredes said.
The backdrop to much of this discussion is the ongoing — as Paredes put it — "controversy and consternation" about the value, efficiency and purpose of the state's institutions of higher education, brought on by a controversial set of proposals for changing higher education promoted by Perry and his conservative allies.
Paredes said the debate, which has dominated higher ed headlines in recent months, was unfortunate because it "distracted from some of the real accomplishments of the last ten years."