Texas education leaders say COVID-19 has altered higher education standards, delivery

Tori Duff, News Reporter

The pandemic has sparked new innovations and mentalities around how Texas approaches higher education, state education experts said during a virtual event Friday.

As part of this year’s Texas Tribune festival, three state experts discussed the future of higher education in Texas, how students were impacted by COVID-19, and how the state is evolving to meet the needs of universities and K-12 schools during a webinar titled “Higher Ed After COVID.”

“(The pandemic) did dramatically accelerate innovation and educational delivery across all our higher education institutions — there’s more digital offerings, more flexible offerings,” said Harrison Keller, the Texas Higher Education commissioner.

The experts agreed students will not receive higher education in the “normal” way after the pandemic.

“We are seeing that it might one day be education on demand,” said Renu Khator, president of Houston University. “Our global reach has really extended. We have students who couldn’t come (to the U.S.) because of visa issues, but we were still able to deliver them education.”

One of the largest educational concerns is that students in both K-12 and higher education are falling behind in learning and specialized skills, said Margaret Spellings, the president and CEO of Texas 2036, an organization working to ensure the future workforce are gaining essential skills.

Spellings said the state is working to create a stronger dialogue between higher education institutions and employers to better prepare students to have the necessary skills to enter the workforce.

Keller said tens of thousands of students were at risk of being disenrolled in fall 2020 due to changing family situations and issues paying bills. Keller said investments by the state such as emergency financial aid allowed Texas to keep more than 60,000 students across the state enrolled.

However, Texas saw a large drop-off in the enrollment of both low-income and male students in 2020, Keller said, while the enrollment of high school graduates dropped by about 6.5%. He said Texas expects those levels to improve when enrollment data for fall 2021 is released.

“These aren’t the kinds of things that just snap back,” Keller said. “As folks get vaccinated and we do get back to normal, we’re gonna feel the effects for a while, and so it’s gonna be important that we work together with the institutions and with employers to reengage students to get back into the pipeline.”

Khator said the University of Houston and other Texas universities saw a large increase in demand for mental health resources during the pandemic.

“The good thing now is we are able to reach out to students virtually, which means our reach has expanded, the wait times have decreased and our help has increased,” Khator said.

Khator said the most important thing higher education officials can do to support students is to have flexibility and compassion for their struggles.

“We have to make sure we can educate people, we can inform people, we can plead with them and we can incentivize them to make sure that they’ll consider the vaccine and they’ll wear masks,” Khator said.