As Pandemic Abates, Texas Higher Education Leaders Refocus on Workforce Development and Economic Recovery

Michael Wood, Director, Education & Workforce

On the downslope of a health crisis that shuttered college and university campuses across the state, Texas’ higher education leaders are finally eyeing a return to normalcy. As the pandemic abates, however, colleges and university systems are refocusing on a new set of challenges: shifts in student enrollment, high rates of joblessness, and the urgent need for economic recovery.

During the Dallas Regional Chamber’s virtual State of Higher Education event, state and regional postsecondary leaders, including Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller, discussed how their institutions plan to respond to these challenges, the ongoing Texas legislative session, and permanent changes to operations driven by the pandemic.

Upon his appointment to head the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) in October 2019, state leaders assured Commissioner Keller that higher education would be the leading priority of the 87th Texas Legislative Session. Following the legislature’s historic 2019 investment in Texas’ public schools, lawmakers and advocates alike believed the natural next step for the state was an overhaul of the policies and funding strategies that impact colleges and universities.

“The rug got pulled out from under us about last March,” said Keller. “COVID certainly upended some of the traditional notions of what a higher education session might look like, but I’ve been arguing throughout the session that a strong focus and strategic investments in higher education is even more important today than it was before the pandemic.”

To that end, Keller stressed that higher education is the “tip of the spear” for facilitating immediate economic recovery and ensuring the long-term economic competitiveness of the state. Citing the comptroller’s improved biennial revenue estimate, Keller is optimistic that additional state support for Texas’ colleges and universities is on the way.

Institutional leaders hope to see state aid materialize as funding for student enrollment growth and a restoration of the 5% budget cuts required of most public higher education institutions last summer.

“That money is primarily used to support our students,” said Dr. Mark Rudin, President of Texas A&M University Commerce (TAMUC). “We need this funding to provide wraparound services, which is especially important during and coming out of the pandemic, whether it’s virtual advising or virtual access to mental health care.”

Further state funding for higher education would come on top of significant allocations for colleges and universities from the three federal stimulus packages. While roughly half of that aid must be administered to students through emergency grants, the rest will go directly to institutions to provide pandemic relief.

On that front, Keller argued that it is hard to overstate the pandemic’s impact on higher education.

“It’s important to recognize that these disruptions due to COVID were the greatest disruptions we’ve seen to the operations of colleges and universities since the end of the Second World War,” he said.

Statewide, institutions that serve the greatest number of Texans saw sharp declines in enrollment, which were particularly pronounced among Black and Hispanic students and students from low-income families. Community college enrollment shrunk by 9% while transfer students and participation in dual credit programs each fell by 8%.

These drops in enrollment represent a strategic vulnerability for Texas, said Keller, and threaten progress against the state’s 60x30TX strategic plan. Worse yet, enrollment may not simply reset once institutions return to normal operations.

“The value proposition for higher education has been challenged on a national level,” said Dr. Neal Smatresk, President of the University of North Texas (UNT). “People are saying you don’t need a higher education degree, yet the vast majority of employers say we have to have a bachelor’s degree.”

In fact, Keller noted that unemployment rates and educational attainment have been strongly correlated throughout the pandemic. By providing accessible pathways to degree and credential attainment, Texas’ higher education institutions will play an integral role in facilitating the state’s economic recovery through the development of a talented workforce.

Doing so effectively, however, will require targeted efforts on the part of institutions to prepare a broader population of students for high-demand career pathways. More than ever, higher education must be accessible beyond so-called “traditional” students. Workers displaced due to the pandemic, whose jobs are either not coming back at all or are returning in fewer quantities, are particularly in need of workforce development programs.

Yet the solution is not simply more credentials, argued Keller, but better credentials. To participate in Texas’ recovery and sustained economic success, both traditional and non-traditional students need access to degree and credential programs aligned with workforce gaps, such as nursing and engineering.

The pandemic’s impact on higher education, while significant, has come with its silver linings. For many institutions, the crisis accelerated the pace of innovation and introduced new programs and policies that may remain even once the pandemic is over.

From UNT’s “first-gen” center to provide support for first-generation college-going students to TAMUC’s telemedicine and virtual mental health counseling offerings, new programs often address pre-existing gaps in institutional student services that were underscored by the crisis.

Dr. Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, noted the college’s substantial new investments in student mental health supports, in addition to significant on-campus developments, to respond to the challenges of the pandemic.

“The trauma that our students have all experienced in the last year is something that doesn’t go away just because they come back to campus,” he said. “We are introducing additional investments in mental health programs and counselors so that we can provide the services that the students are going to need.”

The State of Higher Education was presented by Thomson Reuters. Dallas College was the panel sponsor, the University of Texas at Dallas was the VIP reception sponsor, Texas A&M University Commerce was a silver sponsor, and the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Arlington were VIP attendee sponsors.