Education Policy Politics and Governance

The Elephant in the Room

The 2014 Tribune Festival’s coverage of issues related to higher education in Texas began with a panel discussion on the State’s Closing the Gap education plan. Texas initiated the initial plan in 2000 to address low minority postsecondary education rates.

This year’s panel was composed of educators, analysts, administrators and politicians, some having served in multiple of these roles during the course of their careers. Overall, panelists felt the initial plan had been largely successful, and that things were moving in a positive direction, but all agreed that much work remained to be done.

With the state’s dynamic growth and shifting demographics, any analysis of the future of higher education in Texas can become rather complex; as such, the panel sought to simplify and clarify what policymakers’ key aims should be going forward.

Opinions about what should be included in the 2015 plan diverged slightly among panelists, along two paths of how exactly the plan should seek to address low graduation rates. These viewpoints were not incompatible, but differences among the panel were about questions of implementation and priorities.

The developing board for the 2015 plan is faced with transitioning from simple issues of access to more complex questions addressing some of the observed causal relationships affecting actual student graduation rates. Woody Hunt, Chairman of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Strategic Planning Committee, led this charge with useful statistics throughout the discussion, providing a quantitative framework of where and what the “gap” in Texas actually is.

The first Closing the Gap plan, introduced in 2000, focused on increasing minority graduation in secondary education with specific targets and performance goals. Drafters of the 2015 plan, now is in its final stages of development, will seek to incorporate a consideration of some of the social complexities contributing to low graduation rate among certain groups.

Panelists saw understanding achievement and enrollment gaps in higher education as a long-term issue, and most felt that the bar for improvement was set too low in 2000. Many enrollment goals set in 2000’s plan were well below what is currently being achieved, for example. But despite these improvements in access, many students are not graduating.

As for ways to improve the 2015 plan, one panelist suggested the need for schools to innovate to increase usefulness of resources they have. Other suggestions were to eliminate some of the transfer barriers between community colleges and universities, and to improve financial and degree counseling for students. Pilot programs that employ federal funds for student jobs and housing are also under active consideration.

Fourteen years ago, few would have predicted the tremendous influx of highly educated new citizens into the State or how this might affect the higher education system.

Overall, the 2000 Closing the Gap plan addressed the low number of minorities receiving secondary education; more minorities are now graduating. But, the State has new knowledge to use in the 2015 plan. How can Texas address barriers to graduation rates among minorities, using all that policymakers and educators have learned in the past decade and a half?

Chairman Hunt closed the panel by calling attention to the fact that while children from the top 25% of income-earning families in Texas have an 80% graduation rate, children from the bottom 25% of income earners in the state have a graduation rate of 10% — Hunt called it “the elephant in the room.” The challenge, as with shrinking gaps in ethnicity-based gaps in postsecondary educational achievement, is finding the right long-term policy solutions to help the state meet these challenges in improving access and success in the classroom for all of the state’s residents.

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