Access to higher education produces a better Texas workforce

The state economy is so robust that when ranked as a country, Texas is ahead of Australia, Korea and Spain — ranking as the 15th largest economy in the world. Attaining and maintaining this level of economic prosperity and global leadership requires a highly skilled, well-educated workforce. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board set an ambitious target for higher education through its 60x30 plan, stating that “by 2030, at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have a certificate or degree.” Meeting this target and ensuring the prosperity of our state demands that we focus on access to higher education and its implications to our overall success.

While there is no doubt that higher education is accessible to more individuals than ever before, it is time for Texas to examine if we are reaching the maximum possible number of students and that we are not overlooking untapped potential.

The student population continues to diversify. The demographics related to age, gender and ethnic background shifted significantly, but so have characteristics related to employment and off-campus responsibilities. The “traditional” student entered college directly from high school, graduated on time and only then would enter the workforce full-time. This paradigm still exists, but it is no longer the norm. First-generation students, returning adults and veterans, students balancing jobs and study, and students who serve as wage-earners and care-givers to their families now make up the undergraduate body.

A large percentage of our students today face the pressure of balancing academics with the realities of life. A degree is one of many competing goals they must  balance. Often the demands of work, domestic and family responsibilities must be shouldered side-by-side with academics.

For students with work and family responsibilities, the constraints of location and time can result in either very slow progress towards a degree or having to drop out. Online offerings can help, enabling students to progress towards the attainment of skills needed for bettering their futures through education.

UTA addresses these needs upfront by recognizing that a “traditional” 15-week semester can be a barrier to progression and completion. We offer a number of degree programs that have terms with lengths between five and 15 weeks, with multiple starts through the year in addition to traditional starts in Fall and Spring. This enables working students to continue their studies at a pace and in periods that better match their lives. This flexibility is crucial to their progress and positions them to achieve their degrees and enter the workforce in a reasonable time, with less debt.

In addition, the pipelines that moved students smoothly from high school to four-year institutions have been replaced in large part by pathways that guide students from high school to community college and then to four-year institutions. Many students also move back and forth across more than two institutions or enroll concurrently at two-year and four-year colleges. This creates a need for very different admissions processes, structured articulation agreements and support systems to ensure student success after enrollment at a university.

The lack of focus on these changes has led to serious issues of transferability of courses. Students waste time and money and become disheartened about progress — rather than being enthused by the opportunities of higher education.

At the University of Texas at Arlington, we strive to ensure the success of both our freshmen and transfer students. As their numbers increase, we take special care to not only build seamless pathways but also support each student’s success. This is a large reason we have been ranked as the third-largest destination in the nation for transfer students. The smooth transition for incoming transfer students is one of many reasons why students graduate from UTA with the lowest student debt in Texas.

At UTA, academic excellence and access are bridged through teaching innovations that enable students to acquire the degrees and/or certifications they need. While our College of Engineering — the third largest in Texas — continues to mentor students in face-to-face classroom settings, our fully online programs in Nursing, Education, Social Work and Public Administration have been structured to meet the needs of an ever-growing population. The two courses are very different, but they share the same outcome — highly sought after, career-ready graduates who enter the Texas workforce skilled and well-educated.

Those of us in higher education need to modify our approaches to effectively serve students of all kinds — not just when they start school, but also before and after enrollment — ensuring various levels of support to encourage success.

Our measurement of success must change as well. The notion that all students should graduate in four or even six years belies the reality of balancing life and academics for a growing segment of our population. A person with a family or job must manage responsibilities on their road to obtaining a degree, making those expected timelines for completion unrealistic. Paying tuition alone, or even the full cost of attendance, is a small percentage of the overall needs of today’s student. Metrics matter, but selecting metrics appropriate to our mission and to reality matters even more.

Enhancing access, enabling integration of effort across the pathways taken by students to gain a degree, adopting realistic measures of success — all these and many more aspects need to be re-envisioned for the modern population we serve today. Traditions are wonderful, and to be cherished, but should not be allowed to constrain progress in our service of students.

Vistasp Karbhari, University of Texas at Arlington

Vistasp Karbhari is president of The University of Texas at Arlington