State releases progress report on improving higher education

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A. W. “Whit” Riter III and his colleagues discuss the “Closing the Gaps by 2015” program at the Higher Education Coordinating Board meeting Thursday. The program is designed to make Texas higher education institutions more competitive with those of other states.

Photo Credit: Allen Otto | Daily Texan Staff

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board released an annual report Thursday indicating progress toward improving the state’s reputation for higher education.

Members of the board launched a master plan 11 years ago entitled “Closing the Gaps by 2015,” which was designed to make Texas’ higher education statistics more competitive with other states. The plan set goals to increase enrollment in state universities, increase the number of undergraduate degrees and certificates awarded, boost individual Texas college ratings and secure more funding for research conducted at individual institutions. The plan set a goal to bring total enrollment in higher education institutions to 1,650,000 by 2015.

Although statewide admittance for Hispanic and African-American students did not meet the target figures for 2010, UT has seen a gradual increase in Hispanic admittance rates. According to UT’s 2011 Statistical Handbook the University admitted 3,209 Hispanic freshmen for fall 2010 — 577 more than the fall 2007 term — of which only 1,680 chose to enroll. However, admittance rates for incoming African-American freshmen at UT decreased from 747 students admitted to 647 between fall 2007 and fall 2010.

The report indicated progress toward the board’s other goals set in 2000. For fall 2010, 84,000 more students enrolled in higher education than the previous year, bringing numbers to approximately 486,000 more students than when the program began. Approximately 176,600 degrees and certificates were awarded during 2010, ahead of the target of 171,000. By 2015, a revised version of the plan sets the target at an annual, statewide rate of 210,000 degrees awarded.

Research, another area targeted for improvement, funding increased from 5.3 percent of total federal funding in 2000 to 5.6 percent in 2010. By 2015, the plan aims for state universities to receive 6.5 percent of all federal research funding.

“Our enrollments have gone through the roof and we’re on trajectory to meet our goal,” said Dominic Chavez, director of the Office of External Relations for the board. “We’re encouraging students to get on track quicker.”

Despite an overall increase in numbers, the study showed college participation rates for African-American and Hispanic populations failed to reach the 2010 target. The report also indicated African-American females were more likely to attend college than males, and the percentage of African-American and Hispanic students receiving degrees in 2010 was less than that of Asian and Caucasian students.

Victor Saenz, an assistant professor of educational administration, has researched the influences on the demographic makeup of university campuses and said a variety of factors account for lower rates of African-American and Hispanic college enrollment.

“The top of the list has to do with economic circumstances,” Saenz said. “These students come from working-class backgrounds and these young men of college age see increasing pressure to work and support their families.”

Saenz said an increasing number of African-American and Hispanic males join the military after high school to support their families, which also delays college entry. Increasing tuition rates do not motivate prospective students from lower-income families to apply to educational institutions either, Saenz said.

He said it is harder for students from working-class families who may not have relatives enrolled in higher education courses to see the long-term value of a college degree.

Members of the board developed a project called Generation TX to reach out to potential students coming from low-income families and inspire them to attend college. UT and other universities also provide mentoring and support services to first-generation college students to retain enrollment.

“It’s very obvious as the demographics of the state change, it’s going to impact the demographics of higher education,” said Augustine Garza, deputy director of admissions. “I’ve been watching this for 37 years and I clearly see a change in the landscape taking place.”

Garza said he believes programs such as “Closing the Gap by 2015” push institutes of higher education to do what they can to recruit and provide for students of more diverse backgrounds, whether by culture or economic status.