Texas colleges not graduating enough skilled workers

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by Chris Tomlinson, Houston Chronicle

houstonDefenders of our state like to brag about the Texas miracle; how the state managed to add jobs throughout the Great Recession. But Texas is also the state with the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers, and a new study shows that part of the problem is the public university and community college system.

Texas ranks near the bottom when it comes to graduates with college degrees while the demand for workers with degrees is climbing, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Austin. Today, only a third of Texas adults have some kind of college degree, while by 2020 more than 62 percent of jobs will require a degree, the group determined using census data.

For years, employers have complained about a shortage of qualified applicants to fill jobs that require real skills. That can range from electrician and pipefitter to computer scientist and engineer. The Greater Houston Partnership has decried this problem many times and has a campaign called UpSkill Houston.

Most people blame Texas public schools, whose high school graduates rank 47th in the nation on SAT scores. The Texas Legislature reduced per-student funding in 2011 and has never restored it to 2009 levels. At the same time, lawmakers cut back on testing so it is more difficult to track students who are underperforming. The prognosis for public school performance is not good.

Part of the problem is that half of Texas children live in low-income families, and many have parents who either do not speak English fluently or do not have college educations. Those two factors alone can keep many children from getting a higher education. Without money or role models, many students end up in minimum-wage jobs that keep them living below the poverty line.

UT PanTwenty years ago, Texas could brag about having a top-tier public university school system, but here again, flagship campuses at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M do not rank as high nationally as they once did. Since then, the Legislature has dramatically cut per-student spending, forcing most students to rely on loans to graduate.

“The rising cost of college, coupled with lower state support and inadequate need-based grant aid, leaves many low-income and adult students, those over the age of 24, to depend on working during school, attending part-time, and taking on debt to pay for college,” the CPPP report found. “Even with the perceived affordability of community colleges, Texas students at two-year institutions still have high unmet need after accounting for all grant aid, loans, and personal resources available to pay for college.”

If businesses want the skilled workers they need, now is the time to apply pressure to lawmakers in Austin. The Legislature and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board are developing the next long-range plan for the community college and public university systems.

Public colleges and universities need more money to help struggling students, either by supplementing budgets or by providing grants to help with tuition. Texas businesses should also help reimagine the Texas College Work-Study Program to enhance the student experience and reduce the financial burden on the student.

At a time when most businesses no longer want to train new employees, executives need to recognize that they must then play a role in developing public policies that will produce the workers they need. Qualified employees don’t grow on trees.

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