Texas Higher Education, Business Leaders Discuss Historic Opportunity for Talent Development Amid Legislative Session

By Michael Wood, Managing Director for Education & Workforce

There is no shortage of indicators illustrating Texas’ national and global economic prowess. The state boasts the ninth-largest economy in the world by gross domestic product – just ahead of Canada – and continues to lead all states in job creation. In fact, 25% of all new jobs created in the U.S. last year were created in Texas.

Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Harrison Keller spoke to a room of Dallas Region business and education leaders at the Dallas Region Chamber’s 2023 State of Higher Education Friday, Feb. 10, at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. Keller said the long-term challenge for the state is not the number of new jobs, but rather the quality of those jobs and the state’s ability to fill them.

According to Keller, more than 60% of all jobs in Texas will require some type of training beyond a high school diploma by 2030. Today, just 48% of Texans ages 25-64 have a postsecondary degree of any kind. This gap between the credentials required by jobs and the credentials Texans have has already resulted in more than one million unfilled jobs throughout the state as employers struggle to find applicants with the appropriate qualifications.

Keller views the ongoing Texas legislative session as a historic opportunity to accelerate progress in higher education attainment, due in no small part to an unprecedented budget surplus of nearly $33 billion.

“For higher education and the legislature, it’s a huge opportunity,” said Commissioner Keller. “This is one-time, once-in-a-generation… That means we’ve got to be smart about where we make strategic investments.”

Three items top Keller’s wish list for the 88th Texas Legislature: investments in affordability and access for students, an overhaul of the state’s community college funding model, and expanded capacity for research and development.

Central to equipping more Texans with credentials or degrees is ensuring that postsecondary education is accessible and affordable. However, rising costs of attendance have challenged the value proposition of higher education.

In addition to expanding access to state financial aid programs, Keller emphasized the importance of advising to help students understand their options for paying for their education and avoid taking on unreasonable debt.

Locally, the University of North Texas (UNT) has developed several initiatives, from an award-winning money management program to earlier and more intentional career advising, to reduce the cost burden on students.

“What we are trying to do is to make sure [UNT] is affordable in as many dimensions as possible while giving back high-value credentials,” said Dr. Neal Smatresk, President of UNT. “Even with inflation roaring as it has been, we’ve reduced the average debt of our students by a couple thousand bucks over the past three years and we’ve decreased the number of students who have debt by about 10%.”

Outside of four-year universities, a key option for students seeking an affordable postsecondary education is their local community college.

In December 2022, the Texas Commission on Community College Finance published several recommendations to overhaul the state funding formula for community colleges. Of note, the Commission suggested Texas shift to an outcomes-focused model to incentivize innovative programs that help students swiftly complete a degree or transfer to a four-year university.

The recommendations have received broad support thus far, including $650 million in earmarked funding in the initial House and Senate budget proposals.

“It’s a generational opportunity that you have all of the community colleges as well as the business community aligned together to really make a significant impact,” said Belen Garren, Region Manager of Middle Market Banking at JPMorgan Chase. “From a business community standpoint, there’s a significant need [to invest in our local talent].”

Lastly, Commissioner Keller hopes to see the legislature support the research capacity of so-called emerging research institutions in the state. Lawmakers have expressed support for a new endowment, allocating $2.5 billion in both initial budget proposals, that would provide a significant, one-time investment in the research capabilities of the University of Houston, Texas Tech University, and, locally, UNT.

During the event, the DRC released a new edition of its Dallas-Fort Worth Higher Education Review. The magazine tells the story of DFW’s strong higher education ecosystem and the 70-plus institutions that contribute to DFW’s status as the intellectual capital of Texas.

The State of Higher Education was presented by McCownGordon Construction. The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum was the Venue Sponsor. Oncor and the University of Texas at Arlington were Silver Sponsors.