Educating a Skilled, workforce ready Texas at an affordable cost

College student debt and graduation rates have been subjects of significant conversation for decades. In recent years, these concerns have become topics of intense discussion — especially as they relate to funding models and the role of public higher education in ensuring the economic vitality of states. At the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), we currently have the lowest student debt average of any national university in Texas and 2nd lowest in the nation. Not only do average students graduate with low debt, but UTA is graduating the third-highest number of workforce-ready students among public universities in Texas.

Over the past few sessions, the Texas Legislature has made it clear to those of us leading higher education institutions that we must: (1) increase access to college for all Texans; (2) improve success and outcomes in the form of degrees that meet workforce needs and; (3) increase efficiencies and reduce operational expenses so that the cost of degree is within levels of affordability to the broad public. The direction could not be clearer and many universities are responding to the challenge.

Every public university has a story to tell. At UTA, we have directed our energy toward ensuring that access to the highest-quality education is provided at an affordable cost; and we are succeeding. With a global enrollment of close to 57,000 online and on-campus students, UTA’s physical and numerical trajectory has been nothing short of remarkable. The demand for higher education is there and the interest level is high, particularly among first-generation college students. Enrollment growth has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the number of graduates we produce: 11,526 this year — the 3rd highest in the state and a more than 20 percent increase over the number of students we graduated just two years ago.

At UTA, quality is not a casualty of quantity. Our R-1 Carnegie Classification Highest Research Activity designation puts us in company with 115 elite public and private institutions across the U.S. More than 20 of our graduate programs were ranked among the nation’s best by U.S. News. UTA is proud to be a leader in the nation for ethnic and cultural diversity. With one of the most diverse campuses in the U.S., a UTA education is more relevant to a 21st century Texas population. One recent publication cited UTA as first in Texas and tenth in the nation for undergraduate degrees awarded to African-Americans, and first in Texas for masters degrees awarded to minorities. We are clearly fulfilling our primary responsibility of educating the citizens of Texas.

Our 15 percent enrollment growth from Spring 2015 to Spring 2017 was fueled by the development of specialized pathways ensuring entry for students directly from high school, through structured partnerships with two-year colleges and specialty programs to support returning adults and veterans. We are on target to graduate more than 13,000 highly skilled and workforce-ready students by 2019, adding to the intellectual capital of the state in critical areas of engineering, health, STEM, education, social work and business.

An education that provides access to a wide range of Texans, ensures workforce-ready knowledge, skills development and diversity and is accompanied by the lowest average student debt makes a powerful combination. UTA is delivering, as our Legislature has requested and as the public expects. We continue to develop new degrees in concert with our corporate partners and to meet critical needs of the state — while enhancing efficiencies to keep costs as low as possible. At UTA, our goal is to bridge access and excellence, providing Texas with the highest levels of teaching and research, being a catalyst for economic development — all while maintaining affordability. We have come a long way over the past few years and we will continue to push further and do more.

Vistasp Karbhari, University of Texas at Arlington

Vistasp Karbhari is the President of the University of Texas at Arlington