We're liveblogging the sessions from the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival's Higher Education track. The sessions include panels on progress on the "Closing the Gaps" plan, the completion crisis, the state of community colleges and the affordability of higher education.
Featured speakers include U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, state Sen. Kel Seliger, state Rep. Dan Branch, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, Texas Tech University System Chancellor Robert Duncan and University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers.
Look below for highlights of the weekend's sessions, which are being held on the University of Texas at Austin campus.
With: Juliet García, Woody Hunt, Raymund A. Paredes, Kel Seliger, John Sharp and Reeve Hamilton (mod.)
Hunt, who is serving on a committee that is building Texas’ next long-term higher education plan, said the state has performed well and met the standards of the Closing the Gaps by 2015 plan. However, he said Texas set the bar too low when the plan was made in 2000.
“The evidence today is the goals that we established at the time was too low — in fact they were way too low,” Hunt said.
Hunt said today’s challenge is getting a higher portion of the state’s African-American and Hispanic populations to attain degrees, and figuring out what is a reasonable timeline for those goals.
Paredes said the "Closing the Gaps" by 2015 plan, was directed at closing the educational gap between Texas and other states, was ambitious and he said he disagrees with Hunt.
“I think it was extraordinary ambitious when it was launched,” Paedes said. “Texas was so far behind.”
Paredes criticizes the U.S. and World News Report college rankings, saying colleges should focus less on selectivity and more on bringing low-income background students into campuses.
“We’re starting to move towards new definitions of excellence,” he said.
García notes that in Brownsville, SpaceX is breaking ground at its new facility Monday. She said that will help change the community in the valley, and more graduates will stay instead of going elsewhere in Texas for jobs.
“Why do people leave the valley? One of them is a lack of opportunity. We think SpaceX is going to change that,” García said.
Seliger said he would like to see more alignment between universities and public schools in Texas.
”I got the impression that folks in high school we’re not really talking much to folks in Universities,” Seliger said. “In the case of Brownsville, and certainly A&M, a lot of resources go to remedial courses.”
Sharp said they are studying the gap between male and female engineers at A&M. In 2009, women made up just 20 percent of A&M’s engineering students.
“We think it is happening because too many kids in high school think engineering is all about building buildings, or building roads,” Sharp said.
García proposes that students who get their associate degree at a community college should have automatic admission to a university, saying “the community college has already taken the risk.” García said more than 90 percent of students who get their associate degrees and go on for their bachelor’s degree succeed.
Seliger says he wants to make it clear what the role of a community college is. He said the community colleges are not just for prepping students for universities, but also making them work force ready.
“The community college has a diverse role,” Seliger said.
Is Texas too work force centric? Hunt said he would argue no.
“Companies, when they are going to invest and create jobs, they want to know about the education of your work force,” Hunt said. “I can’t imagine that the new plan won’t be much more focused on work force.”
Paredes says it is possible for a student to major in whatever they like and still have a marketable skill. Paredes notes he got a job as a technical writer right out of college.
“Sometimes it is as simple as telling students what they can sell about themselves when they get on the job market,” Paredes said.
Audience member points out three panelists were involved in the almost closure of the physics program in Brownsville. The audience says other programs were closed, though. He asks — is Texas going to get back to where it was five years?
Paredes responds, saying, “it is important to recognize that universities need to be held accountable for producing good results.”
And that's a wrap on the first session. Stay tuned for the panel on "The Completion Crisis" — it starts at 9:50 a.m.
With: Dan Branch, Renu Khator, Brian McCall, Diana Natalicio, Bill Powers and Reeve Hamilton (mod.)
Is it a crisis if students do not graduate in four years?
McCall says he does not think it is, noting many students work full-time through college. “I think that’s a 1960s, 1970s concept," McCall said. “[It's] not for the average student today. If they graduate in five years, six years, we celebrate."
Branch said while enrollment has increased, Texas has slipped in how it stacks up against other states in graduation rates.
"We’ve got to make sure we keep up with the competition,” Branch said.
Natalicio says she thinks graduation rates do not accurately capture what is happening at a university, because they only consider students who started and finished at the same institution.
“What we’re doing really is understating the number of success stories we’ve had to count,” Natalicio said. “It’s not a crisis, but we must do better.”
Khator, who wishes to see her complete rates go up, said it is important to increase completion rates to provide businesses with workers in Texas. Khator says she gives her students her personal email to students, and asks them to contact her before they think about dropping out.
Powers, who has committed to trying to raise UT-Austin's four-year graduation rate of just above 50 percent to 70 percent by 2017, said he think it is a doable goal.
“We’re making a lot of progress,” Powers said. Powers added that the university does a much better job at four-and-a-half year graduation rates.
Hamilton asks Natalicio if there is a model of outcome-based funding she thinks would work. She said she is for incentives — but it depends on what metrics are being used.
“It is very difficult to identify metrics that work,” Natalicio said. “Internally, we set incentives for our people. We do that, we hold people accountable in the institution…when you start trying to put a template in all settings…it is just very hard to do.”
Khator says she is 100 percent for outcome-based funding— but she said it needs to have two principles. Khator’s two principles are: it should not have a redistributed effect and it must honor and respect the different missions of each university.
Both Natalicio and Khator said they are for incentives and outcome-based funding, but with very serious and specific caveats.
Both university presidents expressed concerns that a one-size fit all template for outcome-based funding could damage a university. Powers said he also supports outcome-based funding, though he acknowledges the discussion on the issue has become a lightning rod.
“I can’t imagine not having outcome-based funding,” Powers said.
Will Texas schools get their tuition revenue bonds, which must be passed by the Texas legislature and provide money for construction projects?
Khator crosses her fingers for luck, but Branch is hesitant to say one way or another.
"Predicting what the Texas legislature will do is a risky business," Branch said.
An audience member asks what does the role of technology play in completion rates?
Natalicio said it must not be viewed as just a tool for those economically disadvantaged.
“I am very enthusiastic about technology, because it levels the playing field for those who may not have access,” Natalicio said.
An audience member asks about mentoring and guidance for undergraduate students, who feels those students are not getting the guidance they need.
Powers responds, saying that issue has been the focus since UT launched its plan to increase four-year graduation rates.
“The kind of road map education you’re talking about, especially at large universities, is the biggest obstacles to graduating on time,” Powers said. "We got to simplify the pathway."
Audience member says his daughter took nine years to graduate. He asks about microloan programs, which he thinks can help students get out of a tough spot. Khator and McCall say they do not have microloan programs at their institutions.
An audience member asks how can universities get students to “find themselves”, and figure out what they want to do quicker?
Powers said that is the idea and point of an undergraduate studies school, which can give students their freshmen year to explore what they want to major in.
And that is a wrap on "The Completion Crisis." The next panel, called "The State of Community Colleges" will be moderated by KUT News' Ben Philpott and it starts at 11:10 a.m.
With: Angela Oriano, Richard Rhodes, Lynda Villanueva, Gregory Williams and Ben Philpott (mod.)
In response to a question about how the expanded role of community colleges is being felt on individual campuses, Rhodes says community colleges serve as the "connector" in higher education. Oriano says the institutions are finally getting the credit they are due.
Rhodes says working with K-12 institutions is important because it puts thought of being a college students into the minds of kids.
Williams notes that Odessa College has been given the go-ahead to open one of four technical early college high schools, which they are excited about. He adds that community colleges need to do a better job of getting kids to think about their future earlier. In some cases, this means connecting them to role models they don't otherwise have.
Williams calls for an end to senioritis and says that students should be taking on more in thier final years of high school, not less. Panelists agree that there could be more blending between high school and college.
Villanueva says that completion rates at community colleges are improving, but are not yet where they need to be. She says it's not about blaming anyone, but understanding the current situation and that there's room for improvement.
Rhodes says community colleges are doing a better job of grouping together and learning from each other.
Williams says we're in a state of transition. Villanueva says we're in a state of crisis in terms of getting community college students to complete.
Philpott asks what the best thing each college is doing right now.
Rhodes says they are developing online degree maps to help advise students. He also touts their math accelerator lab — "the largest learning lab in the galaxy," he says — that helps to speed up remedial education in mathematics.
Williams says they are moving from a 16-week semester to two eight-week terms.
Villanueva mentions Brazosport College's involvement in the New Mathways Project, a statewide inititative to improve the pathways for students learning math. She also discusses a student success course that has been very well received by students.
Oriano says that, at the Texas Success Center, everything they are doing is the best thing they are doing.
The community college leaders also listed their agreements with university and industry partners, which they say are also important.
Villanueva notes that an important aspect of those partnerships is sharing data between institutions.
Philpott notes that being able to start in community college is a good option for students looking to keep costs down. The panelists agree.
Oriano notes that community college enrollments in Texas represent 10 percent of the nation's community college enrollments. So, change here really can move the needle nationally.
First audience question is about adjunct faculty. Rhodes says 50 percent of faculty at Austin Community College are adjuncts, so they are criticial to the institution's success. He says there is room for improvement in getting adjuncts involved.
Oriano notes that the tyical experience of a community college is being part-time enrolled and taught by a part-time instructor, so adjunct issues are important for people to consider.
A recent graduate struggling to get a job asks what ACC and other schools are doing to help alumni. Rhodes says there is more they can do, but they do have an office dedicated to helping with career counseling.
The final question is about the transfer process to make sure that transfer students don't feel like freshmen when they arrive.
Williams said both the community colleges and universities need to work on improving the transition experience. Villanueva says there has been too much of a focus on student who don't make it to the point of transfer.
With: Joaquin Castro, Robert Duncan, Stephanie Bond Huie, Dan Jones, Sue McMillin and Reeve Hamilton (mod.)
Castro says college affordability is an important subject in Texas — he says students need to be able to afford to go to college and graduate. He says “in today’s economy”, it can be very difficult to fit everything into Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s $10,000 degree plan.
Castro says cooperation between the state and federal government has been lacking in Texas.
“Making college affordable is an endeavor that requires the cooperation of the state and federal government," Castro says.
McMillin says while tuition and higher education costs has increased by 50 percent in the past decade in Texas, it has gone up by about 80 percent in nationwide.
"We're still a good deal," McMillin says. "But Texas is still heavily reliant on the loan program."
Duncan calls higher education in Texas “a pretty good deal.” He also says there are various ways to lower costs for individuals, such as starting at community college
Jones says he listened with interest and some skepticism about Perry’s $10,000 degree plan — something he praised initially at a keynote session at a Texas Tribune Festival in 2012. He went to his faculty and asked if they thought it was feasible.
“I credit my faculty with this innovation,” Jones said.
Instead of “tinkering around the edges,” Jones said his faculty proposed something that was altogether different. Jones says Texas A&M’s $10,000 degree plan is built on six-seven week terms per year — and some students are completing courses remarkably quickly.
“What we’re finding out is students can accelerate their progress,” Jones said.
He said in about five years, Texas A&M expects around 3,000 graduates. However, Jones says there are some programs that cannot be handled as a $10,000 degree plan.
"Anything that involves a lot of hands on skills," Jones said.
Huie pitches SeekUT to the audience, which allows for students to go online and look at what they would make in their first year after college and how much debt they will have depending on what they major in college.
She said SeekUT will be updated in October to include graduate and professional student debt.
Hamilton asks if there this a fundamental shift that students need all this information about student debt when they go looking for colleges.
Jones says institutions are not doing a good job coordinating between community colleges to properly guide students. He says universities should be giving students a little more structure in the programs they undertake.
Duncan says he is not sure if the four-year fixed tuition is cheaper — just more predictable. He also acknowledges that outcome-based funding has not been a popular concept in the legislature.
“You don’t want to lower your standards for graduation,” Duncan said.
Castro says the number of articulation agreements in the state is not being tracked by any central body. These agreements are types of partnerships between colleges and community colleges that can help ensure that the classes will transfer. Again, he pushes for coordination.
Duncan says the universities have increased the number of articulation agreements.
Is there an administration bloat — do university systems help or hurt affordability? Duncan says the systems can help in a lot of ways. He says there is no need to repeat some services like legal audits.
Duncan adds that the Texas Tech System’s endowment and philanthropy efforts are huge for helping keep college affordable.
Castro says Congress is divided right now and there has been little action that adds money to higher education.
“If Congress is going to do something productive, we ought to preserve those routes of financing for higher education,” Castro says.
It is time for questions from the audience.
One audience member asks about what is the future of the liberal arts and social sciences at universities in Texas.
Jones says he thinks the future is great.
"I know some of the most accomplished administrators I've come across have come from the humanities," Jones said.
He adds that he is an American studies major and his father, who was a petroleum engineering major, never understood how he got a job.
"Like with everything, it is important to have a balance," Huie adds. "One thing we've learned through our research is these students are actually doing better than you'd thought they were."