During Annual DRC Higher Education Event, State and Local Leaders Discuss Efforts to Strengthen Connection Between Postsecondary and Workforce

Michael Wood, Managing Director, Education & Workforce

“We are in the early stages of a historic, transformative time in higher education,” said Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Harrison Keller during the Dallas Regional Chamber’s annual State of Higher Education luncheon.

Keller is the sixth Commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), appointed on Oct. 1, 2019. The key charge of his agency is to lead the state’s strategic plan for higher education — work that has taken a greater importance given the seismic impacts of COVID-19 on postsecondary education.

Despite a swift economic rebound from the pandemic, higher education enrollment has not yet caught back up, primarily due to a decline in the perceived value of a postsecondary education.

Statewide, two-year college enrollment is down 90,000 and four-year university enrollment is down 10,000 compared to 2019. Meanwhile, the Texas labor market has exceeded pre-pandemic job totals, many of which require a postsecondary credential.

“We have a large gap between the kinds of education and credentials that most of these [good] jobs require, and the kinds of education and credentials most Texans have today,” said Keller. “The Texas Workforce Commission estimates that gap is somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 jobs across the state.”

This gap — which was present prior to COVID-19 but only was exacerbated by the pandemic’s impact on higher education — motivated an update to the state’s higher education strategic plan.

The refresh, called Building a Talent Strong Texas, builds on the foundational work of the former 60x30TX plan. Initially launched in 2015, 60x30TX established a statewide goal that 60% of Texas adults ages 25-34 would earn a postsecondary credential by 2030.

Building a Talent Strong Texas expands upon the goals articulated by 60x30TX through a focus on three pillars, each underscored by a commitment to advancing equity: attainment of postsecondary credentials, postsecondary credentials of value, and research, development, and innovation.

The new plan makes several enhancements to 60x30TX. For example, Building a Talent Strong Texas sets a new statewide goal that 60% of all working age Texans (ages 25-64) will have some type of postsecondary credential by 2030.

A critical component of Building a Talent Strong Texas is its prioritization of postsecondary credentials of value aligned with high-demand, good paying jobs. In fact, Texas is the first state to condition its state higher education goals on the production of credentials of value.

Other notable aspects of Building a Talent Strong Texas include a focus on graduating students with manageable levels of debt and increasing investments in research and development.

To facilitate progress against the new plan, the state has invested substantial federal relief funding into the Tri-agency Workforce Initiative, a collaboration between the THECB, the Texas Education Agency, and the Texas Workforce Commission. Together, the agency collaborative is working to develop resources to provide comprehensive advising for adult learners, accelerate the transition between high school and postsecondary for college-ready students, and align data systems to create dashboards with actionable insights for institutions.

Local institutions are also working to strengthen the value of a higher education. During the event, new leaders from Dallas College and the University of Texas at Arlington discussed how their institutions are eliminating barriers and streamlining pathways to quality careers for students.

Dallas College — North Texas’ largest postsecondary institution — has doubled down on advising supports and wraparound services, such as free textbooks and complimentary DART passes for students.

“Dallas College is in the barrier-busting business,” said Chancellor Justin Lonon. “We have been intently focused on those barriers that get in the way of student success to, through, and beyond our doors.”

The strong job market is also a disincentive for some students to pursue a higher education, particularly for those that have competing obligations.

“Too many of our students are making the choice to be able to pay their rent and basic bills and working more hours than they should be in jobs that are not necessarily going to be career enhancing,” said Dr. Jennifer Cowley, President of the University of Texas at Arlington.

Both leaders stressed the need for local employers to align with higher education institutions to provide paid internships and other “earn-and-learn” opportunities aligned with career pathways. The earlier that students can access these types of programs, the more likely they are to persist through graduation, said Cowley.

The State of Higher Education was presented by Thomson Reuters. Oncor, the University of Texas at Arlington, and West Coast University Texas were Silver Sponsors. The Broaddus Companies, Texas A&M University – Commerce, Texas Woman’s University, the University of North Texas System, and the University of Texas at Dallas were Corporate Sponsors.