What We Heard at #TribuneFest: Higher Education

The nonprofit Texas Tribune‘s annual festival has quickly become the biggest gathering of policy-minded Texans outside of the legislature. Here’s what we heard about higher education this year.

What We Heard at #TribuneFest: Higher Education

Last weekend marked the third annual Texas Tribune Festival, a massive conference featuring interviews, panels, and events centered around public policy in Texas. As the wordsmiths at Texas Monthly pithily describe it, the wonkish gathering is “like the Aspen Ideas Fest, but less silly.” Higher education was featured, along with several other topic areas, or “tracks,” and the festival hit on some major themes: cost, completion, technology, and governance. Here’s our readout.

A session titled “Higher Education in 2038” brought together a venerable group of statewide leaders, including University of Houston president and UH System chancellor Renu Khator, Western Governors University-Texas’ newly minted chancellor Ray Martinez, Texas higher education commissioner Raymund Paredes, BA ’64, PhD ’73, Life Member, state Senate higher education chair Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo), and GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Pauken.

The panelists, moderated by Texas Monthly‘s own Brian Sweany, focused on the watchword in higher ed circles: completion. Martinez noted that there are “at least three and a half million adults” in Texas who started college, but never earned a credential.

Others emphasized that mission, whether through two-year degrees, technical education—which Seliger noted used to be synonymous with the “failure track”—or online education. Pauken struck a populist tone, calling the notion that 4-year degrees are a major metric of success “elitist.” The former workforce commissioner suggested that there needs to be “mutual respect” between technical education and university education

The panelists all emphasized the need to improve completion rates in order to shore-up Texas’ economy into the future.

“If we do everything else but cannot get students across the line, I think we have failed in our core mission,” Khator said.

The conversation also touched on research and tier-one status, as well as that powder keg of an issue: online education. Martinez, whose WGU-Texas is an accredited nonprofit university online, says collaborative learning is still important, and that WGU students work closely with real-world advisors. Panelists agreed that the face of higher education in 25 years would largely be shaped by what system is most successful in the open market.

“Higher education is going to be very different,” Paredes said “but precisely how is still up in the air.”

Another panel, this time moderated by UT’s own Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project, focused on the state’s non-flagship universities, though Prairie View A&M president George Wright took issue with the nomenclature:

UT-Pan American president Robert Nelsen, Sam Houston State president Dana Gibson, and UH-Victoria president Phil Castille rounded out the panel. The conversation dove into the idea of performance, or outcomes-based funding for colleges and universities. Currently, the funding metric for 4-year institutions is simply enrollment.

“Who’s going to win that every year?” Castille asked while emphasizing the need for more nuanced measures, “I don’t mind performance-based standards, but give me something relevant.”

UTPA’s Nelsen commanded attention as he discussed the state’s shifting demographics—a topic of concern across the festival. Nelsen even discussed his belief in educating undocumented students and called immigration reform a “moral imperative.”

The other session that inspired numerous statewide headlines was the conversation between state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and embattled UT regent Wallace Hall on the topic of university governance. You can read our rundown of that session here.

Check out even more from the festival with the Tribune’s live blog, here.

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Photo courtesy the Texas Tribune via Flickr Creative Commons.


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