Lamar hosts Texas Tribune discussion on higher ed
Lamar University hosted “A Conversation on Higher Education & Social Mobility,” presented by the Texas Tribune, Monday, in the Gray Library.
The discussion was moderated by Tribune editor Ayan Mittra. Panelists included LU President Kenneth Evans; Ginger Gossman, senior director for innovation and policy development for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board; Millicent Valek, president of Brazosport College; and Ashley Williams, economic opportunity policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
The panel focused on how Texas colleges and universities serve their lower-income populations in order for them to succeed in their personal and professional lives.
In 2015, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board implemented the 60×30 Plan, which states that by 2030, at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have a certificate or degree.
“We are very close to our first benchmark year in 2020 — we have four student-centered goals and we are making progress toward the right direction in all of the goals,” Gossman said. “We are moving up. But we are not moving fast enough to meet our first benchmark in 2020, so we still definitely have some work ahead of us.
“There is only one place where we are not moving up, and that is the high school to higher education direct enrollment.”
Evans said that strong relationships between universities and the institutions they recruit most from encourage higher matriculation rates.
“We have to make sure we are identifying core areas of competencies and skill levels that are necessary to be successful in the workplace,” he said. “We also need to make sure that the handoff between community colleges are as seamless as possible.”
While the plan is a start to improve the rates of people earning degrees, there are additional measures that can be taken to help students succeed, Valek said.
“I hope the legislature does hold a session on higher education,” she said. “The legislature did a phenomenal job of working with public education this time, and that was long overdue.
“In that remedy, they put in some requirements for the handoff between high school and higher ed in the college and career readiness component. So, from my perspective, that just makes a natural point where we ought to focus and work.”
Valek said the area that 60×30 is farthest behind on is the matriculation rate between high school and into higher ed.
“We have a whole untapped market there of folks who are going nowhere and some of them may be going into the workforce or they may not have a plan at all, but I think a lot of work on that nexus is very important,” she said.
Williams said that Texas colleges and universities cannot achieve the goal of the 60×30 Plan unless more funding is handed down by the legislature.
“There has to be more of a prioritization from the Texas legislature of higher education,” she said. “And by prioritization, I mean money. For decades really, but especially beginning in 2000, the Texas legislature started investing less and less in higher education. In 2003, the legislature voted to deregulate tuition, meaning that Texas public colleges and universities could charge unlimited tuition to students and families.
“So, the burden of paying for higher education in Texas has significantly shifted to the backs of students and families. Without state investment and prioritization of higher education, I think it would be very difficult to achieve that goal.”
Another issue facing students, especially lower-income students, is how they will pay for their education.
“We are able to help students through private funding — we have secured a considerable amount of gifts that make it possible for scholarships to be directed towards students,” Evans said. “We help them through our financial aid space and navigate in that rather complicated environment.”
Evans said that Lamar offers help to students whose families may not be able to navigate the education payment system, but that because graduation rates of those groups is six-plus years, funding is not always available for them.
“In the context of a student who is working full or part-time, often a first-generation student frequently coming from a family that doesn’t have the socioeconomic wherewithal to help underwrite them, a graduation rate of six, seven or even eight years is a tremendous accomplishment, when you consider the amount of time that they’re working,” he said.
Williams said it is important that whatever plans are put in place to address student debt be mindful and adaptive to minority students.
“Not everyone experiences debt the same way,” she said. “An average is just that — an average. It can obscure what’s beneath that number. For example, black and brown students are especially impacted by student debt. A recent SMU report showed that for the average black student, in order to get a four-year degree, everything else being equal, they have to borrow about $7,000 more than their white counterparts.
“There’s a lot there. There’s historical and racial wealth gaps and additional challenges that these students face, so solutions that are considerate and equitable in their approach would be one important focus.”
Valek said that Brazosport College has tested a few programs that might improve student success and increase student support.
“When students achieve even a little bit of success, they are more encouraged to continue and earn their degree,” she said.
To watch the entire panel discussion, visit texastribune.org.
Olivia Malick, UP editor