The defining challenge of Texas

Photo by Tamir Kalifa for The Texas Tribune

Until I moved to Texas, I never appreciated how far one could travel without leaving home. Since touching down in Austin four months ago, I’ve been crisscrossing the Lone Star State, getting to know the 14 institutions of The University of Texas System and their communities. A challenge and opportunity that will define our state for the next 20 years and beyond has become apparent to me: how well we manage our rapid and immense growth.

Of course, growth can be a wonderful thing. But if we want Texas to grow in a way that enhances our prosperity, advances our quality of life and preserves the things that make our state special, we will need take full advantage of the talented people residing within our borders. Higher education must play a leading role.

I’ve long believed that talent is distributed equally — regardless of economic status, race, ethnicity, national origin or zip code — but opportunity is not. The difference maker, the great engine of economic and social mobility that helps turn talent into opportunity, is education, and in the 21st century, especially higher education. To have the most opportunity, to get the best jobs in a knowledge-based economy and to ensure Texas is the leader in that economy, education beyond high school is essential.

Forecasts vary in magnitude, but every expert believes the population of Texas is going to grow dramatically — perhaps even double — in the next 30 years. Higher education in Texas may or may not be the right size for today. But it is absolutely not the right size for Texas 30 years from now — and that’s a problem we can’t wait 29 years to fix. To get ready for the future, we need to start increasing our capacity now. But more capacity doesn’t mean just “more of the same.” We need to change the path we are on regarding educational attainment in Texas.

Today, just three in 10 Texans between the ages of 25 and 34 have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. That places us 35th in the country. While I’ve only lived in Texas for a short time, I know Texans don’t like to rank 35th out of 50 in anything good. Part of the problem is we have not succeeded in overcoming significant achievement gaps in educational attainment. While this phenomenon is not unique to Texas, it is playing out here on a scale unlike any other. We have the most at stake and the most to gain in removing obstacles that derail so many aspiring scholars today.

With outstanding institutions and systems of higher education across the entire state, Texas has a chance to show the rest of the nation how it’s done. We need to create more and better pathways for students to get into college and give every student the support needed to earn a degree, as quickly as possible. To handle our growth, we need the capacity to do more teaching, more research, more training of health care professionals — in other words, more of what we’re so good at today. But we also need to organize and innovate in new ways.

A young person can’t be made college-ready in their last two years of high school, and we need to engage more with partners from early childhood education through high school. We ought to double down on early college, dual-credit, Advanced Placement and other programs that give students a running start toward a degree. Transfer from a community college to a four-year institution should be as seamless as possible. We need more high-quality online education, both for traditional students and for older adults who need to retool skills and expertise mid-career. And we must deepen relationships with the private sector to ensure graduates have the skills and attributes needed to succeed.

With the second-largest and third-youngest state population in the country, Texas has a pool of talent and potential that no other state can match. And that pool is growing fast. With the continued support of our elected officials, the business and philanthropic communities — everyone with a stake in the future of this great state — we can turn the challenge of growth into an opportunity, which is the Texas way. We can do it together, and we have to start now.

Disclosure: The University of Texas System and several of its institutions have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

James B. Milliken

Chancellor, The University of Texas System

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