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Technical College Faces Questions and a Makeover

Amid talk of expanded technical education in the state, Texas State Technical College West Texas has been shrinking. But administrators tie the decline to a pending transition to a new funding model based on students' earnings.

Keith Plantier lectures in a "Wind Safety" course at Texas State Technical College in Sweetwater, Texas, on July, 22, 2013. The college is placing more of an emphasis on courses that will help their students find employment in the growing number of oilfields and wind farms in West Texas.

SWEETWATER — Striking a tone that has become increasingly fashionable among Texas politicians, House Speaker Joe Straus urged his fellow lawmakers at the outset of this year’s legislative session to “expand opportunity in Texas this session by improving coordination among high schools, community and technical colleges and the private sector so that no young person feels destined to spend life drifting from one low-skilled, minimum-wage job to the next.”

But amid talk of expanded technical education, Texas State Technical College West Texas — one of the four institutions that make up the state’s college system dedicated to technical education and work force development — has been shrinking.

In 2007, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, more than 10,500 students were taking classes through TSTC West Texas, which has campuses in Brownwood, Abilene, Breckenridge and Sweetwater. Five years later, the school’s enrollment was about 1,500.

The college’s administrators say the decrease reflects a recalibration of the state’s approach to offering technical education.

Starting on Sept. 1, after years of financing colleges based on the number of students enrolled, the amount of money the state gives to the TSTC System will be based solely on former students’ earnings.

While legislative efforts to tie some state financing to outcomes at universities have largely fallen flat, the state’s technical schools have embraced the concept.

“What is education worth? That is really at the heart of the accountability debate,” said Michael Reeser, the former president of the West Texas campuses and current chancellor of the TSTC System.

Under the new “value-added accountability funding formula,” as Reeser called it, the earnings of students who attended the college for at least nine credit hours will be tracked using Texas Workforce Commission data — as long as they remain in the state. The difference between their income after five years and the minimum wage will be considered value added by their education.

The economic benefit of the wage earners’ tax bracket and buying power to the state will be calculated and used by the coordinating board to determine the level of financing for the school.

“We have a unique mission and a unique structure,” Reeser said. “That allowed us to do this unique formula. What we do is not appropriate for the other two-year sector schools, and it’s not appropriate for the universities.

“You would never have another poet if you used this at a university.”

The other TSTC schools have also experienced recent dips in enrollment, though not as significantly as in West Texas. Reeser said that was because West Texas has been the test case for the new model and has been preparing for the transition since the concept was first floated in 2007.

Reeser and Gail Lawrence, the current president of the West Texas campuses, attributed much of the enrollment decline to the recent elimination of programs including digital media, which was popular among students but unlikely to get them a job in the area, and agricultural technology, which promised good job prospects but proved less popular.

According to TSTC, most of the decline can be attributed to the shedding of programs designed to drive up enrollment — particularly an online continuing education program for probationers.

Though that decision was made in 2008, Reeser said it was in preparation for an eventual conversion to a system in which high enrollment numbers were not as important as the potential earnings of students.

But George Reamy, a former conflict resolution coordinator for the TSTC System who maintains a website dedicated to monitoring the state’s technical schools, is not convinced that the new model is driving the enrollment decrease. “I’ve just never seen a campus die like this before,” he said.

Reamy pointed to the West Texas administration’s decision to outsource its general academic courses — which are required for an associate degree — to nearby community colleges as a significant reason for declining interest in the college.

Its nursing program also took a hit in 2012 when it was placed on conditional approval status by the Texas Board of Nursing, which prevented it from enrolling new students for much of the year.

“Maybe they are going to fix it,” Reamy said. “They look like they may be poised to stop the drop. But if they don’t, how low can they go?”

Lawrence said the nursing program was back on track and should grow after being “retooled.” She also acknowledged that moving general academic courses off campus had proved unpopular with students and said that they would soon return.

“You don’t change an industry and not take some risks,” Reeser said, adding that the course offerings and financing model would continue to be tweaked and improved.

He acknowledged that recruiting and enrolling students in rural West Texas can be difficult. Last August, the college administration scrambled to organize a last-minute recruiting effort and waived some registration requirements to increase enrollment.

Reeser said he expected enrollment to increase in coming years, growing beyond what he called “a good core of 1,000 to 2,000 students” as new courses that begin this fall complement the expected oil-driven boom around the Cline Shale. Susan Brown, the Higher Education Coordinating Board’s assistant commissioner of planning and accountability, said she was not concerned about enrollment at the technical colleges.

“They’ve been doing this in a very thoughtful way,” Brown said. “They are doing things to really focus on where they need to be.”

Of the college’s new model, which she helped TSTC to create,  Brown said: “I have not seen anything that is this tied to work force. Time will tell if it works. I think a lot of people are watching them right now.”

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