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Changes in Curriculum Bring Opportunity for Technical Colleges

At the state’s technical colleges, controversial changes to the state's high school curriculum in House Bill 5 have been met with a sense of excitement — and anticipation that the shift could lead to significant expansion.

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.

Higher education officials largely stayed on the sidelines last year when the Texas Legislature debated and ultimately passed a bill that led to a significant overhaul of the state’s high school curriculum.

Those colleges and universities are now trying to determine if and how they must adjust as the state prepares to carry out the changes, including a requirement for high school students to select diploma “endorsements” in specialized areas like science and technology or business and industry.

Supporters argued the changes would allow students the flexibility to pursue a curriculum more tailored to their interests and abilities. Business leaders saw them as a way to funnel students — particularly those who were not university-bound — into the workforce more quickly.

At the state’s technical colleges, the new approach has been met with a sense of excitement — and anticipation that the shift could lead to significant expansion.

Michael Reeser, the chancellor of the Texas State Technical College System, said he hoped the new openness to technical education would help more students view that post-secondary path more positively.

“We think an awful lot of Texans are missing the opportunity to get really high-paying jobs” through associate’s degrees and certificates, he said, “because of that stigma that in some places remains.”

It is too early to tell how many more high school graduates will enroll in technical colleges following completion of the new endorsements, though Reeser said they were expecting an increase.

The bill calls for high schools to partner with higher education institutions to supplement their course offerings. Dominic Chavez, a spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, predicted that most of the partnerships would be with technical or community colleges.

“School districts particularly need help in doing technical education because it is expensive to deliver and takes special expertise to teach,” Reeser said.

A business and industry endorsement, for example, could include courses ranging from automotive technology to graphic design.

Reeser said that nearly 50 school districts have already inquired about partnerships, though it remains to be seen how many of the overtures will lead to new programs for the 2014-15 school year.

Some are already underway. In partnership with the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, Texas State Technical College West Texas is offering online courses to high school students in Presidio.

“To me, it’s like having a clean sheet of paper to design something to get really good about student outputs,” said Paul Szuch, the president of the Lamar Institute of Technology in Beaumont. "It’s a breath of fresh air that means we can really start making a difference now.”

Adam Hutchison, the provost at Texas State Technical College Waco, said the changes presented opportunities for technical colleges to play a larger role in addressing students’ post-secondary preparedness while they were still in high school, rather than playing catch-up after they graduated.

“We’re all singing from the same sheet music, as it were,” he said.

At other types of higher education institutions, however, there is still uncertainty about how changes will affect students’ college readiness.

Sylvia Leal, the vice president of enrollment services at the University of Texas at Brownsville, told lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday that there was still “a lot of confusion” in her community.

She said some had concerns that this shift might emphasize career development over college preparation. “We need to do a better job sharing the information so that they know it’s not one or the other,” she said.

Chavez said increased advising in high school would be critical to ensure that students selected and followed the path they desired.

Disclosure: At the time of publication, the University of Texas-Permian Basin was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2012 and 2013. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.) 

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