Texas, like a host of states, launched an ambitious plan last decade for boosting college attainment by 2030. The goal, set in 2015, was to have 60 percent of its young adult population earn a degree or college certificate by that year.
But lawmakers hadn’t seen the COVID-19 pandemic coming. So Harrison Keller, the Texas commissioner of higher education, announced in December that the initiative, called the 60×30 plan, has been updated to reflect the new reality of higher education and work in the state. The state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board is expected to officially adopt the plan later this month.
“(The coronavirus) has been the largest disruption that our colleges and universities have seen since the end of the second World War,” Keller said in an interview with El Paso Matters.
The details: The new plan, the “Building a Talent Strong Texas” initiative, will expand the existing goals and add new ones.
- The target population will now include those who are 35-64 years-old instead of being limited to those 25-34. Keller said the pandemic showed just how many older adults need to build new skills and earn credentials.
“We want to maintain an educational attainment goal for our young working population, but we’re going to add a goal for our older Texans as well because we have hundreds of thousands of people that need to upskill and reskill to get back into the labor market to advance in their careers,” Keller said.
- The plan will recognize non-traditional educational credits, including certificates achieved through training provided by Google, LinkedIn and other web-based platforms.
“The main marker that we’re putting down is that all of these need to be credentials of value,” Keller said. “So they need to be credentials that translate into better incomes for students and families.”
- And the updated plan will have a more relaxed approach to student debt in relation to first-year wages after a student graduates. Under the original plan, the board stated that student debt should not exceed 60 percent of first-year wages—but Keller said that was not an intuitive approach.
Instead, the state will focus more on developing financial literacy skills in high school, and helping students understand the typical wages that come with specific credentials and careers, and how those wages relate to any debts they accumulate.
“This is something that people need to be thinking about and talking about before they even enroll,” Keller said.
According to the 2021 progress report from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 45 percent of the targeted population of 25-34 year-olds held a degree or certificate as of 2019. That was a 1.7 percentage point increase from 2018, but left the state short of where it needs to be to meet its goal of 48 percent attainment in 2020.
System shock: And that was before COVID-19 sent enrollment tumbling. The pandemic has impacted community college enrollment the most, Keller said, with an 11 percent decrease across the state since 2019. El Paso Community College, for example, saw a 6 percent decrease this fall semester following a 10 percent drop the previous fall.
State Sen. César Blanco, D-El Paso, a member of the Texas Senate’s Higher Education Committee, said additional state funding to support higher education institutions during the pandemic has helped.
Beyond degrees: Leila Melendez, CEO of Workforce Solutions Borderplex, said expanding the educational attainment beyond degrees and college certificates will show a more inclusive snapshot of the educated population of the state.
Her organization, for example, helps people earn CompTIA credentials that enable them to enter the region’s tech workforce without a college credential. “From the numbers that I have of people, I would say between 100 and 150 people over the last four years have got CompTIA credentials through us, but they are not on the 60 by 30 report,” Melendez said.
Powering future growth
Research and the role of research universities will be another addition to the revamped plan. As the ninth largest economy in the world, Keller said, the state needs to continue to develop its research and development infrastructure.
“For Texas to stay competitive we’re going to have to invest in research and development infrastructures. A lot of it will be around our leading research institutions, our health science centers, our major research universities and emerging research universities,” he said.
What’s next: Keller said the new targets will be adopted this month and new dashboards will be available to the public next spring or summer. The dashboards will include data breakdowns by race, ethnicity and gender in order to track specific group populations.
“We need to look beyond our traditional assumptions and our traditional models of delivering higher education so that we’re engaging talented students much earlier in the pipeline,” Keller said. “We need to acknowledge and develop our higher education system with the assumption that people are going to have to reskill and upskill multiple times throughout their lives.”
Jewél Jackson covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.