Texas needs to make education greater priority

WSJBy Chris Tomlinson, Houston Chronicle

20140806_135303_146583_texaseducation_jpg_800x1000_q100If the hiring manager at your business appears eternally pessimistic, it’s likely because only 38 percent of Texas workers have any form of certificate or degree beyond a high school diploma.

In case you think those younger than 34 are more likely to have advanced training, guess again. Texas’ youth may be our future, but workers older than 55 are slightly more educated as a group, giving Texas one of the least educated labor forces in the country, according to U.S. census data.

“If you have the skills, you have a complex job that pays more. If you don’t have those skills, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a job, it’s just lower paying,” Woody Hunt, an El Paso businessman, told a Texas Association of Business education conference last week. “We don’t want low-paying jobs.”

Texas’ economic future relies on high-paying jobs, so that’s why Hunt led a committee at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to draft 60X30TX, a strategic plan developed to deal with the state’s piteously low level of educational achievement. The plan calls for 60 percent of the Texas workforce to hold some kind of post-high school certificate or degree by 2030, at a cost less than 60 percent of the graduate’s first year of income.

That means increasing the number of certificates and degrees granted from 290,000 in 2014 to 550,000 in 2030. That goal could go higher, though, since the plan calls for benchmarking Texas’ goals to what other states and other developed countries achieve during the same period.

“This is an audacious goal, but that’s how great things happen,” state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, said at the conference to rally support.

Frankly, the goal is the minimum of what Texas needs, because the state is falling behind.

“We have a workforce that is no better educated among 18- to 34-year-olds than the old guys, the 55- to 64-year-olds,” Hunt said. “We would have already had a less educated workforce if it weren’t for a significant in-migration of people who have an education.”

The core problem is that a child’s likelihood of educational success is directly correlated to the parents’ level of wealth and education. Texas has a high poverty rate of 17.2 percent, with 60 percent of schoolchildren living in an economically disadvantaged household.

Only 10 percent of students from those homes in 2014 earned any kind of certificate or degree within six years of graduating high school, Hunt said. Only 50 percent of all university freshmen earn a degree within six years.

In Texas, wealth and education levels are highly correlated to race and ethnicity. The state’s population is evolving quickly, with Hispanics and African-Americans making up 65 percent of schoolchildren in 2015.

“We are losing a race. The demographic change is moving faster than our ability to fill the gaps between different demographic groups,” Hunt warned. “There is only one way out of this, we have to shrink the disparities in a much more rapid pace between racial and ethnic groups.”

Leading the race to graduate Hispanic students is El Paso Community College, where 85 percent of students are Hispanic, 70 percent are the first in their family to attend college, and 87 percent rely on financial aid.

“It’s all about the job; we have to supply the training and skills that the students need to be productive members of the workforce,” said William Serrata, the school’s president.

El Paso offers dual-credit courses that allow high school juniors and seniors to take college courses. Serrata said 90 percent of those students successfully transition into community college, which then helps interested students transfer into the University of Texas at El Paso to earn a four-year degree.

Improving efficiency and success rates has long been a priority for the Texas Association of Business. CEO Bill Hammond wants institutions to save money by keeping students on schedule for graduation.

“Structure, structure, structure. You give a 19-year-old a catalog, and they wind up not taking the course they need to graduate,” Hammond said.

Raising educational achievement while keeping costs low also will require more government investment. Lawmakers talk a good game about investing in education, but in recent sessions they have fallen far short of what institutions say they need to boost graduation rates in high-demand degrees.

“We need to make sure our community colleges are more viable, and I say that from a financial point of view,” Zerwas said.

Texas needs a step change in how it educates people, from pre-K through graduate school, to make sure students are properly prepared and can keep the state economically competitive. That means more funding for all types of education, and a system that gives economically disadvantaged students the opportunities, structure and boost they need to succeed in a way that is economical.

The 60X30 plan, on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s website offers a blueprint to tackle this problem.

What’s needed now is the will to implement it.

Chris Tomlinson is the Houston Chronicle’s business columnist.


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