Texas Higher Education Leaders Make the Case for the Role of Colleges, Universities in State’s Economic Recovery

Michael Wood, Manager, Education & Workforce

In the face of rapid and unprecedented change due to COVID-19, Texas’ institutions of higher education are ready to play a pivotal role in the state’s challenging path toward economic recovery, said Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Harrison Keller during a virtual fireside chat at the Dallas Regional Chamber’s annual State of Higher Education.

The event, presented by Thomson Reuters and sponsored by Dallas College, also featured a panel of regional higher education leaders, including Texas Woman’s University Chancellor & President Dr. Carine Feyten, the University of Texas at Arlington Interim President Dr. Teik Lim, Dallas College Chancellor Dr. Joe May, and Texas House Committee on Higher Education Chair Chris Turner.

Appointed by Governor Greg Abbott in 2019, Commissioner Keller leads the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), the state agency charged with providing strategic leadership, accreditation, and state-funded scholarship programs for public colleges and universities throughout Texas. The agency’s efforts are guided by the overarching 60x30TX strategic plan for higher education, which endeavors to equip at least 60% of Texans aged 25 to 34 with a postsecondary credential or degree by the year 2030.

Facing record unemployment and evolving workforce needs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Keller believes that Texas’ colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to help the state respond to the crisis and revitalize the Texas economy.

However, Texas’ higher education institutions will need to adjust their strategies to help Texans succeed in a changing job market. This includes serving a broader segment of the state as non-traditional student enrollment is expected to increase as workers in hard-hit industries look to re-skill and adapting course offerings to target the industries best positioned to support the state’s economic recovery.

“Higher education is going to be an important part of how we get out of this, both on the research side and the human capital side,” said Keller. “We need to make smart, strategic investments in higher education that are going to help accelerate the Texas recovery.”

Yet formidable challenges stand in the way of higher education institutions this fall. First and foremost, said Keller, is ensuring student safety while affording the quality education students deserve. For North Texas’ colleges and universities, preparing for an unprecedented fall semester has spurred innovation.

Dr. Feyten has urged her institution to embrace the new normal and identify new, creative ways of operating. Over the spring and summer, the TWU faculty has made an impressive transition to virtual learning, especially for courses – such as chemistry labs and music classes – that did not initially seem feasible through remote instruction.

“COVID has pushed us light years ahead of where we were; we’ve all of a sudden moved really fast, whereas normally we’d move at a glacial pace,” said Feyten.

Dr. Lim anticipates that the nature of in-person instruction has been forever changed – a shift he believes was already occurring but has been accelerated due to the pandemic. For one, Dr. Lim expects e-learning to be a permanent, more prevalent fixture of university offerings. Concurrently, the on-campus experience will evolve to focus less on lectures and more on collaboration.

“The classroom, in a few years, will be a thing of the past – just like the chalkboard – because the classroom where people sit listening to a lecture is not conducive to learning,” Lim said. “Residential life on campus will still be alive and well because the campus will be a place of engagement and collaboration, augmented by a whole host of technology.”

This fall, however, some concentrations and courses necessitate in-person learning, and many students intend to live on campus even if the majority of their courses are virtual. As such, regional colleges and universities have implemented a host of safety protocols, including plexiglass protectors for faculty and staff, limited class sizes, repurposed outdoor and larger in-door spaces previously not used for classes, and isolation rooms in residence halls should a student residing on campus become sick.

While calling these efforts to mitigate risk “heroic,” Keller stressed that students must assume personal responsibility to prevent college campuses from becoming coronavirus hot spots.

Keller also anticipates a tough outing for higher education in the upcoming Texas legislative session, as state funding for public colleges and universities is often one of the first items on the chopping block during tight budget cycles. Disinvesting in higher education now, said Keller, would be a strategic error.

In fact, enrollment in higher education always spikes during economic downturns, said Dr. May. Despite this, May shares Keller’s concerns about losing ground in the state budget even as the demand for and expectations of higher education institutions and their graduates surge.

“I get concerned that in times of tight budgets, many policymakers stop looking at us as a resource but see us as a cost,” said May. “Nothing else has really changed in terms of what we do, but the lens with which we’re viewed has changed because of external challenges.”

State Representative Turner is hopeful his colleagues in the legislature will realize the crucial role higher education plays in digging out of the current economic crisis.

Still, the state is facing a severe deficit. While there is some reason for optimism, including better than expected sales tax receipts and the potential of additional federal aid, the legislature will inevitably confront a difficult budgeting cycle. Rather than cut funding for state agencies, Turner would prefer to see the legislature explore the relevance of outdated tax loopholes that could bring in significant additional revenue.

“The bottom line is this: this is not the time to withdraw or in any way try to cut corners on higher education,” said Turner. “Higher education is essential to the future of our state [and] it is the responsibility of the state of Texas to make higher education opportunities available to our citizens, whether they are graduating seniors from high school or so-called non-traditional students.”

During the event, the Dallas Regional Chamber unveiled its premiere issue of the DFW Higher Education Review, a magazine showcasing the unparalleled strength of higher education in Dallas-Fort Worth. Read a digital version of the magazine, sponsored by Thomson Reuters.