The Texas economy is changing and, with it, the state’s need for education and training.
Texas added 2.4 million jobs from 2011 to 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and at this pace, the state can expect to add another 4 million jobs between 2021 and 2036. Many of these new positions will require bachelor’s degrees or more. But there will also be continued need for what some call “middle-skill” workers—those with more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. A significant share of the middle tier, especially technicians and skilled service employees, will be relatively well paid, with benefits and opportunities for promotion.
The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce defines good jobs as those that pay a minimum of $35,000 and a median of $57,000 per year for workers ages 25 to 35. In a 2017 report, the center estimated that Texas’ good jobs were evenly split between what it called “BA workers” and “non-BA workers”—those with and without bachelor’s degrees.
Only 36 percent of Texas non-BA workers held “good jobs” in 2015. But those who did, generally a mix of blue-collar and skilled service workers, saw median earnings of $57,000 a year. Among the industries that paid top dollar were manufacturing, construction, transportation, information technology and health care.
The challenge for the state: Unlike yesterday’s blue-collar and service-sector jobs, most of these positions require some postsecondary education. Workers need technical, communication and critical-thinking skills, and they must be capable of problem solving.
Few institutions in Texas are better positioned to provide this job-focused education and training than the state’s 54 community and technical colleges.
More than 40 percent of all Texans enrolled in higher education attend two-year public colleges. Some students are focused largely on academic courses and aim to transfer to four-year colleges and universities; many others are preparing to go straight into the world of work.
The state’s large and rapidly growing Hispanic population relies heavily on community colleges. While 40 percent of the state population is Hispanic, 50 percent of degree-seeking community college students and 39 percent of those enrolled in nondegree-granting continuing education programs are Hispanic. Also important, Texas community colleges are affordable. Average annual tuition is $2,828, and learners are half as likely as their peers at four-year schools to graduate with student loan debt (Table 1).
|NOTE: Average tuition and fees for full-time students in public two-year colleges in 2020-21.
SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics.
Unlike some states, which overlook the essential role community colleges can play in preparing the workforce of tomorrow, several recent Texas policy initiatives have focused on this potential, looking for ways to realize it.
Spurred in part by the pandemic and by the fast-growing state economy, business leaders, legislators, the governor and public policy groups, including Aim Hire Texas and Texas 2036, have turned their attention to two-year institutions and their often-untapped capabilities. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has provided guidance on community college reform, with an emphasis on short, job-focused programs and the alternative, nondegree credentials of increasing interest to employers. With postpandemic demand driving economic expansion, many business leaders are urging that community college workforce education be at the top of the agenda for the 2023 legislative session.
This ad hoc reform movement faces a variety of challenges. The state’s community colleges vary widely, from tiny schools in remote rural areas to giant, urban institutions serving a range of learners, some from well-to-do suburbs, others from disadvantaged inner cities. The largest, Dallas College, has 64,000 degree-seeking students and another estimated 25,000 in nondegree continuing education programs. The smallest, Frank Phillips College in Borger, north of Amarillo, has 1,400 students.
Some of the state’s two-year public institutions are flush with funding; others struggle to keep their doors open. And workforce needs vary hugely across the state; there is no one-size-fits-all model.
Adding to the challenge, in Texas, as nationwide, community college enrollments dropped during the pandemic—10.6 percent in Texas and 13.2 percent nationwide from fall 2019 to fall 2021. There has been much speculation about the reasons, including fear of COVID-19, lack of child care or perhaps dislike for online or virtual instruction. But among other reasons, many potential students appear to be opting for the labor market instead.
The Legislature and the higher education coordinating board are aware of these challenges and moving to address them as they strive to elevate and integrate workforce education. “We have a Texas-size laboratory,” says Texas higher education commissioner Harrison Keller. “We’re experimenting and innovating for the benefit of Texans but also, I hope, for other states.”
The last two years have seen a burst of changes:
- Emergency pandemic funding.
- A new strategic plan for higher education.
- A commission created by the Legislature to revamp community college financing.
- A new definition of “credentials of value” that looks beyond academic degrees and certificates, and a new data infrastructure to keep track of them.
The initiatives have spilled out one after the other, putting Texas on the front lines of national efforts to realize the potential of community colleges. Many of these ideas are just getting off the ground, and much work lies ahead.