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2018 Higher Education Almanac

Letter from the Commissioner

When the 86th regular session of the Texas legislature adjourns in May 2019, Texas will be nearly one-third of the way toward the conclusion of its 15-year higher education strategic plan, 60x30TX. That means the legislature will have put in place a state budget and policies that will largely determine the likelihood of the state reaching its 60x30 goals in higher educational attainment and completion, providing all college (both two- and four-year) graduates marketable skills, and keeping student debt at manageable levels. In preparation for the 86th session, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will make both budgetary and policy recommendations to the legislature intended to accelerate the state's progress toward achieving these goals. But whatever the outcomes of the 86th session, Texas must stand firm in its commitment to achieving the goals of 60x30TX.

The 2018 higher education almanac shows where we stand today. As I have been saying for several years, our progress toward achieving the goals of 60x30TX can be summed up in two sentences: (1) We're getting better but not fast enough. (2) We can't get there doing business as usual. Nevertheless, Texas has some real accomplishments to build on. Our statewide university six-year graduation rate has gone up from 49 percent in 2000 to 61 percent in 2017. With the implementation of outcomes-based funding, both completion and transfer rates in our two-year colleges have moved up recently. We now have six colleges and universities that have adopted the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate program, which entails implementing innovative practices such as competency-based education and can reduce the cost of baccalaureate degrees by more than half.

Whatever the 86th legislature does, Texas public colleges and universities must find ways to get better educational outcomes with their resources. Developmental education remains a challenge, but the New Mathways Project and integrated reading and writing are showing promising results. Odessa College has achieved dramatic improvement in student persistence and completion by offering students eight-week academic terms, which provide working students more flexibility than standard 15-week semesters. Intensive student data analysis and intrusive advising are showing positive results, and institutions are finding that their investments in such practices are generally recovered because of higher levels of state funding generated by increased student persistence and completion.

As we push closer to 2030, our Texas colleges and universities must address two central myths in higher education that invariably undermine student success. The first is that, in the three-month period between graduating high school and landing on a college campus, students are magically transformed into adults. Consequently, we often make essential services such as academic and financial advising, tutoring, and psychological services optional, with predictable results. Recent studies show that mandatory or "intrusive" services typically yield better outcomes.

The second myth in higher education that seriously inhibits student and institutional success is that, by virtue of earning a doctoral degree, faculty know how to teach. Alas, not so. Many college faculty, both young and experienced, did not teach in graduate school and, even if they did, typically received little guidance from their professors and fellow graduate students. Often, they know little about cognitive science or about how students learn and retain information. Institutions in Texas and other states have experienced significant improvement in student retention and success by introducing some form of professional development in teaching for faculty.

Finally, in Texas public higher education, we must address, if not a myth, the widespread belief that all improvement in student success is expensive and cannot be accomplished without greater state support. We simply can't use this as an excuse for not getting better results. Taking roll in class, learning students' names, and requiring at-risk students to visit their professors are proven strategies for getting better student outcomes and do not necessarily cost more than current practices. The University of South Florida significantly improved student success rates simply by encouraging faculty to hold office hours immediately after class.

Although the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will recommend higher levels of funding in the 86th legislative session for our public colleges and universities, no one can predict the result. Whatever happens, I urge my colleagues in higher education to focus on best practices and innovation and move Texas resolutely toward achieving the goals of 60x30TX.

Raymund A. Paredes, Ph.D.
Commissioner of Higher Education
April 2018

2018 Texas Public Higher Education Almanac: A Profile of State and Institutional Performance and Characteristics (pdf) 


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