Citing a significant drop statewide in student enrollment in higher education institutions, Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith led off a paneled discussion Thursday at Odessa College sharing how three West Texas education leaders were selected not because their respective institutions reflect the statewide decline, but rather because their institutions are seeing increases in student populations contrary to the statewide trend.
Joining Smith in the discussion included Greg Williams, president of Odessa College; Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Texas Permian Basin; and Scott Muri, superintendent of the Ector County Independent School District.
Setting the stage for the discussion, Smith shared statewide statistics on student higher education enrollment, highlighting how the state has seen just over a 13 percent drop in community college enrollment and a 4 percent drop in main four-year institutions.
However, the performance in West Texas institutions do not reflect this decline.
“The news in this region is actually better than the news in Texas in the main,” stated Smith, adding “and part of the reason we wanted to come here is not because you’re emblematic of the decline, but because apparently something is working here that is not working elsewhere.”
Woodley described how UTPB experienced about a 5 percent increase in student enrollment during the onset of the pandemic, and while she says last year the school lost around 375 students, this year UTPB officials are seeing an upswing of about 11 percent enrollment. Woodley accredits a 5-year effort to entice people to attend, the new Falcon Free Program, where students with limited family resources can get their tuition paid for, and other outreach programs.
Shifting to Williams, Smith pointed out how community colleges historically represent the majority of the higher education population in the state and opened the floor to Williams to explain how Odessa College is managing to “cut against the grain” by seeing high student growth.
Williams said when he started at Odessa College, the institution had 4,000 students, and the college has seen record growth each year, including during the pandemic, and broke 8,000 students for the first time this past fall.
Williams explained that in 2011 Odessa College had a “defunding scare,” and school leaders decided at that time they would never remain in a position to rely entirely on the legislature for funding.
Asked about the college-going culture before the pandemic versus today, Muri said the culture was on the rise which he attributed to the collaboration with the other institution leaders on the panel.
Muri went on to state that ECISD officials determined that at least 70% of their students need to have one of four forms of post-secondary credentials, including a degree, technical licensing or military experience.
Muri added that the key to reaching that 70% goal is creating a culture within the student populations that look toward post-secondary education goals. He explained that in partnering with both local higher education institutions students at the district could become a part of those institutions through-dual credit and enrollment opportunities.
Smith cited a variety of statistics on post-secondary education in Texas among young adults, including how Texas is only second to California in adults ages 24 to 35 that do not have at least an associate degree.
Woodley addressed these statistics focusing on the underperformance in West Texas by citing the need in the growing energy industry for a workforce that requires a higher-level of education and skillsets.
Smith then shifted the conversation back to the Texas Legislature, prefacing his next question to the education leaders by mentioning recent actions by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in making the Senate Higher Education Committee a subcommittee, mentioning Patrick’s interest in ending faculty tenure, and then asking whether they felt that the legislature understands the importance of higher education and whether the legislature “respects” it.
Williams responded by saying he doesn’t know how the legislature feels but that his job is to make an impression on the legislature while focusing on their students.
- Smith shared how in a past conversation with state Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) that Craddick shared how when he first came to the legislature in 1969 school finance was a top issue. Fast forward decades and the issue is still something the legislature has yet to solve, Smith noted.
- Woodley shared how UTPB navigated the pandemic by flipping to digital learning very quickly. Williams said the pandemic ultimately made OC better and explained how they kept faculty coming to work and transitioned as many students as possible to virtual learning.
- Asked to identify any one policy that the legislature could put into place to solve the problem that Texas does not have a robust college culture, Woodley said the issue comes back to funding and that the legislature should make sure the formulas, including those for K through 12 schools, are fully funded to keep education affordable.
- The conversation is available to view on demand at texastribune.org/events.