We can – and must – make college more accessible

Recently, the Dallas Morning News highlighterankings released by Dallas-based ScholarShot.com.  The study listed the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas at Dallas as the top Texas institutions at addressing the needs of first-generation, low-income college students.

Why is this so important and why are the support services offered by these institutions so critical to the future success of our state? 

As our state economy changes, the need for Texans with college degrees or professional certifications increases.  To meet these needs, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board set the goal that by the year 2030, at least 60 percent of those ages 25-34 need to have completed a college degree or certification.  This is based on data from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, that estimates that about 60 percent of new jobs will require higher education credentials and skills.  

Since this goal was put on paper in 2015, our state has made progress, due in large part to the commitment of institutions like UTA, UNT-Dallas and many others.  However, even with this improvement, we’re still not where we need to be.

According to data through 2017, only 43.5 percent of 25-34 year-olds have completed a certificate or degree.  With just ten short years left to reach our goal, we must find even more new tools to help these students succeed.

Two weeks ago, I participated in a roundtable discussion with former Tennessee governor Bill Haslam, hosted by the Dallas-based Commit Partnership.  During his time as governor, this conservative Republican made access to higher education for low-income residents a priority.  Under his leadership, the state implemented the Tennessee Promise, a program that provides last-dollar scholarships to students attending two-year public colleges.  Last-dollar scholarships cover the gap between the amount covered by other financial aid sources and the total cost of tuition and fees.

The Tennessee Promise doesn’t stop there.  The program provides additional support via mentors for each student to help guide them from the application and admissions process on through their college career.  It’s been so successful that over 90,000 Tennesseans have taken part since 2014 with those participating completing degrees at a higher rate than their non-participant peers. 

Similar initiatives are happening here in Texas at the local level to help reduce the financial burden on students and to provide more support to at-risk populations. These initiatives are a great start, but with Texas’ growing and diverse population, we must do much more. 

Just as we have a statewide, strategic goal for college completion, we need to have a statewide strategic plan for meeting that goal.  Maybe we could learn something from Tennessee.