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Perry Moore compares the future of Texas' workforce to seed corn


Austin Business Journal (0707/2006)
By Jenny Robertson

SAN MARCOS, TEXAS — “If you don't take care of your soil, it won't take care of you,” says the provost of Texas State University-San Marcos. “If you don't have seed corn, you don't have a crop.”

Higher education, Moore says, will prove crucial in harvesting a qualified workforce that will allow Texas to keep pace with economies in other states and other countries. That logic drives the state's Closing the Gaps initiative -- a higher education measure enacted in 2000 to enroll more students, improve general excellence and beef up research in the Lone Star State.

A large piece of that plan calls for enrolling 630,000 more students in Texas colleges or universities before 2015: That total is roughly equal to 80 percent of the current Central Texas workforce.

The effort will cost local colleges and universities hundreds of millions of dollars in construction to house new students. Schools will need to hire hundreds -- if not thousands -- of professors, counselors and staff to meet demand.

And if Texas doesn't meet its goals, local officials and business leaders say, the consequences could be dire.

“If we do this right, we'll be a global economic powerhouse,” says Sandy Dochen, manager of corporate community relations at IBM Corp. in Austin.“If we don't do this right, we become a third-world economy.”

What Closing the Gaps entails

“My concern — as a native Texan and a proud Texan — is that we'll wake up to the critical importance of giving a higher education to our students a little too late,” Moore says. “And Massachusetts and North Carolina, much less China, will have outdistanced us.”

“And Texas won't be able to catch up.”

Moore turns his gaze out his wide office windows, over the Texas State campus. His head cupped in his hand and his long legs crossed, he is at turns serious, joking, worried and optimistic about whether Texas will succeed in Closing the Gaps.

The initiative germinated in the late 1990s after state demographer Steve Murdock studied projected Texas population trends. He found that the state was growing at rate higher than the national average, a good sign for economic health.

But its largest demographic increases were likely to lie in the Hispanic and black populations -- both of which are poorly represented in higher education. In 2002, the groups comprised more than half of the state's 15-to-34-year-old population, but only 36 percent of college and university enrollment. That meant that the majority of Texas' future workforce was also less likely to have some sort of post-secondary degree.

To counter that trend, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board worked with politicians, higher education officials and businesses to craft the Closing the Gaps initiative. With less than 10 years to go, the board says it still needs to enroll about 500,000 students more than the 1.2 million students already enrolled in Texas colleges and universities. And it needs to cast a wider net to include more minorities. A 2005 progress report shows the state exceeding its expectations for total and black enrollment, while meeting only 70 percent of targeted Hispanic enrollment.

Locally, Texas State and Austin Community College expect to absorb the tremendous majority of that influx. Most smaller, private colleges are unable or unwilling to vastly increase their student populations, and both the University of Texas and Texas A&M have capped enrollment.

Texas State has already seen its enrollment balloon — in the past five years, it has grown about 30 percent. Between its two campuses in San Marcos and Round Rock, the school currently comprises about 27,000 students; all but 1,200 attend class in San Marcos.

In the next five years, the school will boost its San Marcos population to 30,000. Texas State officials aren't sure how fast the Round Rock campus will grow, saying it will largely depend on demand in Williamson and northern Travis counties.

And at ACC, college officials say they will increase enrollment by about 10,000 students to meet their part of Closing the Gaps. That will put the school's enrollment at about 40,000.

In fact, the state coordinating board expects community colleges to provide a pipeline of future students and workers. By 2015, it estimates that 60 percent of all incoming students will start at a state community or technical college.

And local schools say they won't meet that demand without a torrent of new money and resources. Though they use a variety of revenue sources, including private fundraising, most say their funding will come from either the state or the students. And by making tuition more expensive, they worry about out-pricing the very students they're trying to attract.

“This is where the rhetoric really meets the hard realities of dollars and math,” Moore says.

What's at stake

Literally hundreds of billions of dollars in future Texas income, consumer spending and tax coffers teeter on whether Closing the Gaps succeeds.

According to the state demographer's office, Texas residents 25 and older garnered about $251 billion in earned income in 2000.

If the disparity in black and Hispanic education stays the same as it is today, the state estimates that income in the year 2040 will total about $621 billion, about a 150 percent increase from 2000.

But if the state can close the education gaps between whites and minorities, that number will jump to $938 billion, a 275 percent increase.

“What's really overwhelming is when you look at the numbers of what happens when we don't do it,” says Glenda Barron, associate commissioner at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. “It's scary.”

Locally, Central Texas sells itself on having one of the best-educated workforces in the world, says Drew Scheberle, vice president for education and workforce development at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. About 40 to 45 percent of the area's residents have a bachelor's degree or higher, and 80 percent have had some college experience.

That brainpower fuels local companies and attracts new firms to move here, he says.

“Our workforce puts us in a lot of games,” Scheberle says.

But he and others add that the area has imported scholarly talent from around the world, which explains a large chunk of the local population's education. Researchers and professors come to the region's many universities, and companies also bring in their own skilled workers. But to reach the Closing the Gaps goal, the region will have to get better at educating its local workforce, rather than simply relying on incoming talent, they say.

What business can do

Raymund Paredes is familiar with just about every large chamber of commerce in the Lone Star State. The Texas commissioner of higher education and his staff have traveled from Houston to El Paso, speaking to school boards, Hispanic groups, even faith-based leaders to generate support for Closing the Gaps.

Big business gets it, he says — particularly high tech. Those companies already are searching desperately for math- and science-trained graduates.

“The business community is more aggressive and more understanding of these issues than any other sector of the state,” Paredes says.

He tries to sell them on two key factors of the plan: accountability and cost-efficiency. For accountability, he talks about increasing graduation rates and accelerating the time it takes a student to obtain a degree. For cost-efficiency, he mentions burgeoning technology that will increase online class participation or allow professors to broadcast their lectures to multiple classes at the same time.

From the corporate world, Paredes says, “What I hear more than anything is, ‘What can I do to help?’”

Because many business leaders have close ties to legislators and the governor's office, he asks them to bend politicians' ears about the need for higher education funding. But with a state facing looming health care costs and other financial woes, he admits that state funding is a balancing act.

Business can also provide essential financial support, he says. He points to the Texas Retailers Association, which has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars just this year to a state-run scholarship initiative for needy students.

“Clearly, we need more corporations to step up and fund scholarship and grant programs,” Paredes says. “It's very obvious that neither the state nor the feds, nor both entities together, can provide sufficient money to meet the need.”

Locally, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is focused on getting more high-school students to fill out college applications and financial aid forms, as well as making more kids college-ready.

Scheberle says enrolling more students has to start with filling out applications, which many students currently don't do.

The chamber is trying to obtain a baseline for how many already engage in those activities, a number that thus far hasn't been tracked, he says. Only then can the group develop objectives for the future.

It's a more structured tack than has previously been taken, Scheberle says. Before, businesspeople would volunteer in February and March for “Financial Aid Saturdays,” helping kids complete their forms.

But as the chamber's nascent effort develops, it should know exactly how many students it serves — and whether that number is high enough.

And Sandy Dochen at IBM rattles off a half-dozen programs that connect his company to local higher education.

“Hopefully, we're planting a lot of seeds,” he says.

With both its Black Family Technology Awareness Week and its La Familia program aimed at Hispanics, IBM employees engage several dozen local minority children and families to teach them about computers and technology.

It hosts a summer camp in science and math for girls, who receive mentoring from the company's female engineers. And IBM partners with ACC by donating reading software for adults; with a microphone and an earpiece, the student actually reads to the computer, which corrects the speaker if he pronounces something incorrectly.

IBM also works with groups such as the Texas Business and Education Coalition to advocate on higher education policy issues.

Dochen concedes that Closing the Gaps involves some overwhelming numbers -- in dollars, staff, students and hours. But he says groups must take on the challenge in "bite-sized chunks," adding that the future of his and other companies depends on its success.

“You can wring your hands and say, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to do this?’” he says. “Or you can join hands and say, ‘This is what we have to.’”