Reworking programs to assist nontraditional students is an urgent issue in Texas, with millions of Texans out of work, the Commissioner of Higher Education said during a committee meeting Monday.
The Texas Senate Committee on Higher Education heard about a dozen invited testimonies on initiatives to increase and improve higher education completion for nontraditional students. The committee defines nontraditional students as including first-time adult learners, re-enrolling students, first-generation students, working adults and at-risk students.
Harrison Keller, who oversees the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said the unemployment rate for workers without post-secondary credentials is more than twice the unemployment rate of workers with bachelor’s degrees.
“As we look beyond our immediate response towards recovery, it can’t be overemphasized that in today’s Texas economy, jobs follow skills,” Keller said. “Nearly all the net new jobs created in the United States and about 85% of the new jobs that were created in Texas in the wake of the Great Recession required at least some education beyond high school.”
Keller said adult learners are one of the most important populations the state needs to serve right now.
“We have more than 3.6 million Texans filed for unemployment since March, and many of the jobs that people lost may not return or aren’t returning quickly, so our state needs to move quickly to help Texans rescale and upskill,” Keller said. “More than a third of the Texans we surveyed who have some college, no credentials, said they've either lost or left their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Peter Beard, senior vice president for Regional Workforce Development at the Greater Houston Partnership, said the Texas economy is undergoing a fundamental shift to an innovation-based economy, which is accelerating due to the pandemic.
“Just as the talent supply chain serves employers, it serves adult learners,” Beard said during his testimony. “We need to design it by understanding their needs. Some of these important supports include wraparound social services to address childcare, transportation, food insecurity and other finance challenges that may arise.”
Beth Brunk-Chavez, dean of UT-El Paso’s extended university, said the Finish@UT program allows for distributed teaching and learning across multiple UT institutions and can provide opportunities for adult learners to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
“When full time employment, family commitments or geographical location presents barriers, programs such as Finish@UT provides access to an excellent education without requiring learners to put their lives on hold,” Brunk-Chavez said during her testimony.
Finish@UT is a program that allows students who have started but not completed their UT degree to obtain their diploma fully online, according to the UT System website. The program launched December 2011.
Brunk-Chavez said Finish@UT aims to increase outreach and awareness across Texas, especially after the pandemic has taken an economic toll on the state.
“Now, more than ever, those of us in higher education have an obligation to expand access to innovative programs that prepare adult learners for a post-COVID economy,” Brunk-Chavez said.