by Reeve Hamilton, Texas Tribune
For nearly 14 years, the state’s higher education policy has been guided by a plan, adopted by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, called “Closing the Gaps by 2015.” As the name suggests, time is running short.
Many of those who have tracked the progress of the plan, which was designed to bring the state’s higher education performance up to par with — not move it ahead of — comparable states, credit it with pushing back a discouraging tide.
“It is unquestionably a success overall,” said Fred Heldenfels, who recently cycled off the coordinating board after serving as its chairman for more than three years, “but there are certainly some asterisks.”
Some objectives in key areas — including college enrollment among certain ethnic groups and degrees awarded in math and science — are simply unlikely to be met by the 2015 deadline.
Given that educational attainment is the greatest predictor of economic success, former state demographer Steve Murdock said, getting those numbers up is vital for Texas and, in particular, for the state’s rapidly growing Hispanic population.
“Our future is not only tied to how well minority populations do in an economic sense,” he said, “but more important to us, it is tied to how well they do in an education sense.”
El Paso businessman Woody Hunt, who is chairing a committee to help shape the state’s next long-term higher education plan, said at the group’s inaugural meeting in March that the state needs to pick up the pace.
“If we do not do that, we will continue on the trend we’re on today,” he said, “which is a workforce which drives our quality of life, our income, our ability to support all of our programs — including education — that is in both an absolute decline and a relative decline.”
The Closing the Gaps plan includes broad goals in the categories of participation, success, excellence and research. “We wanted it to be simple enough to put on a pocket card that anyone could take out and look at,” said Pamela Willeford, a former coordinating board chairwoman.
Not long after becoming chairwoman in 1998, she recalled a meeting at which the board was reviewing proposals for degrees in mortuary science where she felt compelled to turn to then-Higher Education Commissioner Don Brown and say, “I don’t think this is what I was put on here to do.”
“We needed to get everybody on the same page and moving in the same direction,” she said. “We had done a lot of work on the demographics, and everybody knew what was coming in terms of becoming a majority-minority state.”
The participation aspect of the Closing the Gaps plan when it was adopted in October of 2000 initially called for 500,000 additional students to be added to the rolls of Texas higher education institutions by 2015. That number was later increased to 630,000 additional students.
The goal was for Texas’ black, Hispanic and white populations to each have a 5.7-percent participation rate in higher education — and for Texas to have a similar rate across the board. Only black students are currently exceeding their 2015 target — and even they saw a slight dip in the last year.
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, whose tenure has spanned nearly the entirety of the period covered by the plan, said Hispanic enrollment has shot up on Perry’s watch, as has the number of degrees awarded to Hispanics each year. “The governor’s focus has remained on accountability, accessibility and affordability in higher education,” she said in an email. “We’ve made great strides in helping more Texans access higher education.”
Hispanic enrollment in higher education has more than doubled since 2000, when there were fewer than 241,500 Hispanic students. But while that group has had the fastest growth rate of any of the ethnicities tracked in the Closing the Gaps plan, Hispanic enrollment has consistently lagged behind the rate necessary to hit the 2015 target, which called for more than 676,000 total Hispanic students.
According to a coordinating board report last year, an additional 59,000 Hispanic students would have had to enroll in 2013 and 2014 to meet that target. Instead, from 2012 to 2013, the Hispanic population in Texas higher education grew by fewer than 11,000 students.
But Hispanic enrollment has not slid as much as white enrollment, which has been trending downward since 2009. Between 2009 and 2013, white enrollment growth declined by about 36 percent.
Coordinating board officials explain this in part by saying that the state’s white population peaked in 2007. The drop-off in enrollment, they postulate, may also be due to students going to college out of state or opting to join the workforce, possibly in one of the state’s booming shale plays.
But David Gardner, the coordinating board’s deputy commissioner for planning and accountability, who leads a weekly meeting to study student data in search of strategies to close the gaps, downplayed the suggestion that would-be students were heading to the oilfields.
“We’ve found that there are some high-paying jobs, but most of the jobs students are taking out of high school, even in those oil areas, aren’t really high-paying jobs,” he said.
It’s still possible for Texas to meet its overall participation goal. It will require adding 34,000 additional students in the remaining years of the plan, though the slowing of enrollment growth in recent years could make it close. From 2012 to 2013, for the first time since the inception of Closing the Gaps, the overall enrollment statewide actually dropped.
One of the keys to getting the numbers up is boosting male enrollment across the board. If white males participated at the same rate as their female peers, their overall enrollment declines would be erased.
“We have this very noticeable gender trend where female participation is doing quite well,” Heldenfels noted, “ but male enrollment — and ergo, probably graduations — is lagging in every cohort.”
Addressing this growing gender gap was not included in Closing the Gaps, but Gardner said it had certainly caught the coordinating board’s attention and would probably be included in a long-range statewide plan that will be implemented after the current one expires in 2015. The new plan will also emphasize workforce alignment and global competitiveness.
The state won’t have to wait until the buzzer to meet its overall success goal, which was to increase the number of undergraduate degrees and certificates awarded annually to 210,000. More than 242,800 were awarded in 2013, and the trend line has been positive.
But there are certain categories in which the state was hoping to dole out more degrees. In science, technology, engineering and math, for example, they had hoped to be awarding 29,000 degrees combined by 2015, compared with fewer than 12,000 degrees in 2000. By 2013, degrees in these areas were fewer than 20,000, leaving significant room for improvement.
The state was also hoping to dramatically increase the number of teachers certified each year, but that does not appear to have happened either. Instead, from 2011 to 2012, the number of teacher certifications dropped by about 24 percent, down to just above 18,000. The 2015 goal is 44,700 certifications, nearly two and a half times the 2012 total.
Heldenfels said one of the unsung success stories of Closing the Gaps is its progress in research. The plan called for Texas to reach $3 billion in annual research expenditures statewide by 2015. The state hit that benchmark six years ago, and Texas’ total is now about $3.8 billion a year.
As for the fuzzier “excellence” goals, no Texas institution has cracked the top 10 public universities in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, though many individual programs throughout the state are highly ranked and regarded.
Williford said she was disappointed — “because it is important for our state, not personally disappointed” — that some objectives of the plan she hatched more than a decade ago would not be met. But she said she’s “proud of where we are now. Obviously, it’s never enough. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Murdock, who is advising Hunt’s group, said the state’s higher education progress since 2000, though not always up to what officials had hoped, “doesn’t tell me that we’ve failed and we shouldn’t move forward. It tells me we should step up our programs and enhance what we do.”
He also said that to improve outcomes, the state should address the needs of students long before they reach higher education. “Most of the data that I look at indicates overwhelmingly that early childhood education is more important for closing the gaps than anything that comes after that,” he said. “If you look only at higher education, a lot of kids are already out of the system.”
Meanwhile, at the coordinating board headquarters in North Austin, there are no signs of complacency. Gardner said staffers are not giving up on any of the lagging indicators in the final months of Closing the Gaps.
“We have a plan,” he said. “We plan to achieve it. We’re going to do everything we can.”