Tom Pauken, in his long-shot bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, is the only statewide candidate who has made higher education a central issue in his campaign thus far. But his approach to the issue is drawing criticism from within the higher education community.
In a recent web ad, Pauken, a former chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, criticized the state’s “elitist educational system pushing everybody to go to a four-year university." It’s an argument that staffers at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board have heard before, but Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes insists that it is “absolutely not true.”
“I’ve shown Tom Pauken the data, and he knows that some of the claims he makes are simply not borne out by the facts,” Paredes said, noting that fewer than 60 percent of Texas high school graduates go to college, and the vast majority of those who do begin their post-secondary education at two-year institutions. “Clearly, if 70 percent of students are starting out in community colleges, we don’t have an elitist attitude in Texas that universities are the only institutions worth attending.”
Pauken’s comments were made in the context of a push for greater emphasis on vocational training. This week, he told The Texas Tribune that if he were to become governor, he would urge the Legislature to dedicate a greater percentage of the state’s higher education budget to community and technical colleges, provided that the funds were spent on career and technical training. He’d also push for tuition to be frozen at four-year universities.
“I do think we’ve gotten so obsessed with college degrees,” Pauken said this week. “And often these universities push people into assuming large amounts of debt.”
By getting technical degrees or certificates tailored toward in-demand jobs with relatively high starting salaries, many students could avoid such a predicament, Pauken said. In his ad, Pauken cited petrochemical engineers, master plumbers and industry-certified welders as examples.
“Young people see this push that everybody’s supposed to go to a university,” Pauken said this week, “and they wind up dropping out of high school. Otherwise, if given opportunities, they could go into a career pathway that could lead to an industry-certified credential or license.”
Paredes did not disagree that there is a “mismatch” between the state’s workforce needs and its education system, and that students at all levels of higher education need to be provided a better sense of job prospects in different fields. But he took issue with the notion that the state’s public secondary education system puts an excessive emphasis on attending four-year universities.
Compared with other states, Paredes said: “We’re close to the bottom in terms of SAT verbal scores. We’re in the bottom third in terms of SAT math scores. We’re in the middle of the pack in terms of college completion rates, university completion rates and the number of people with any sort of post-secondary credential. Clearly, if that’s our focus in K-12, we’re not doing a very good job of it.”
One of the coordinating board’s outreach efforts to help students access post-secondary education is a site called CollegeForAllTexans.com. While he acknowledged that some might interpret the term "college" in a way that supports Pauken's premise, Paredes said it is not meant to refer solely to universities. Rather, he said, the coordinating board is seeking to increase enrollment at all levels of higher ed.
But Pauken argued that vocational training has been treated like a “stepchild that was looked down upon by the elites.”
“I’m not denigrating the liberal arts or math and science,” Pauken said. “They’re very important. I’m just saying that we’ve gotten obsessed with pushing people in one direction. You have to have respect for both.”
The Texas State Technical College System focuses entirely on the sort of vocational credentialing that Pauken would like to see emphasized. In total, the system experienced a more than 5 percent increase in enrollment in the last year — the largest growth rate of any higher education sector in the state. The total number of degrees and certificates awarded each year by TSTC that are considered critical to the state’s 15-year effort to improve its higher education outcomes has also been increasing in recent years.
According to a 2012 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the number of certificates — credentials that indicate completion of a course of study that is narrower in scope than what is required for an associate's degree and is typically tailored to a small set of occupations — awarded nationally has “skyrocketed” by more than 800 percent over the last three decades.
Texas’ higher education commissioner disagreed that vocational education had been overlooked in favor of an emphasis on university education. “We’re not doing nearly as well as we need to in either sector,” he said. “What’s worrisome about [Pauken’s] comments is that people listen to what he says and they say that we clearly need to shift the focus more to career and technical education. When he says we’re sending too many people to universities, I always respond that I wish we had that problem.”
Anticipating a need for more robust high school counseling as a result of recent changes to high school graduation requirements, which Pauken vocally supported and Paredes publicly expressed concerns about, the coordinating board has placed significant emphasis on a program called Advise TX, which puts recent college graduates in high schools to serve as college counselors.
Paredes, who said that he does not subscribe to the notion that all students should go to college, said the counselors have been informed that whether a high school student is best suited to a university, a community college or a technical college, “their job is to let students know their options in post-secondary education and to look for the right fit.”