The frigid weather Texas is slowly thawing out from is another in a line of disruptions that colleges and universities have had to adapt to this past year.
Commissioner of Higher Education for the State of Texas Harrison Keller said in a phone interview that COVID-19 has changed — and is changing — the delivery of education, but also the state economy, which higher education has to adapt to as well.
With the power outages that came with the snow and ice this past week, universities not only lost some class time but may also have lost research. Keller said he hasn’t gotten reports of that yet, but when these events occur it’s not just the power going out and people losing what’s in their refrigerators. It could also be years of research because some of it may take place in climate controlled conditions.
As for learning loss, higher education isn’t experiencing it as acutely as kindergarten through 12th grade.
“At this point, I think on that front the colleges and universities are pretty adaptable where if you lose a week of classes they can make adjustments in their schedules and in their syllabi and figure out how to make up a few days here or there,” Keller said. “So on that front, I think higher ed tends to be more nimble than the public ed side, especially given what everyone’s experienced this past year. We just yesterday (Thursday) sent out some guidance. There are rules around how many hours of instruction you have to have for a fundable course. We can provide some flexibility around that. So if we’re talking about a week of disruption, it doesn’t count against them. If you had something that was a longer disruption, like a month, then that’s more challenging so then they have to figure out do they have to convert to remote instruction? Do you send students home? Depending on the situation and the extent of the damage, you might have to make larger accommodations, but again, the reports that I’ve heard have been more about temporary disruptions where it’s a few days.”
Keller said there is a project review going on and one of the four pillars that they are looking at is research.
“… What’s the role of the research mission in expanding and driving regional and state economic development. Especially as the economy moves quickly in the direction of higher skilled jobs and more of a knowledge-based economy, the universities become more and more important to these communities,” he added.
Earlier this month, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation announced the expansion of its Blackstone LaunchPad student entrepreneurship programming from two to eight campuses in the University of Texas System, including UTPB, helping bring the initiative’s network resources to a more diverse set of students.
The $5 million expansion is designed to give more students critical access to resources opportunities and mentorship.
Other universities in the system that will be given access includes University of Texas-El Paso, UT Rio Grande Valley, UT San Antonio, UT Medical Branch and UT Southwestern.
“I’m a big fan of integrating work on entrepreneurship into the curriculum and expanding opportunities for students, so that kind of thing is, I think, pretty exciting for UTPB and for the community,” Keller said.
“… You have a different kind of educational experience when your institution is encouraging and supporting … your start-up and when you get coaching and support to turn your discovery into something that can help impact people’s lives,” he added.
But what if you’re not business minded, or you’re bad at math?
“… I think that’s something we probably need to rethink just the way that we think about the way we teach math and the way we encourage people around math,” Keller said. “I think we’re probably too quick to be able to say well I’m just bad at math. … We don’t say I’m bad at reading. I think that there’s some really exciting interesting work that’s going on nationally, but also that Texas math educators, leaders, to rethink the math curriculum and think about how to make the math curriculum more relevant and more directly connected to the kinds of problems that people need to navigate in different kinds of jobs. So less of a forced march to college algebra and more emphasis on like the analytics and statistics that kind of thing.”
One silver lining of the disruption everyone has experienced this past year is it’s accelerating the pace of innovation of how education is delivered in colleges and universities.
“There are some really interesting things that folks are doing with their calendars and with their curriculum. Of course, rethinking how we use physical space, how we use technology, so it feels to me like we’re at the front edge of this fundamental transformation in what higher education looks like,” Keller said.
Generally speaking, enrollments at colleges and universities have declined this past year. Odessa College and UTPB have bucked that trend. Keller said he thinks numbers will come back across the board.
“That’s going to be really, really important for us to support enrollments bouncing back on a couple of fronts. One is that we know if students stop out or drop out then they’re less likely to finish; and the longer they stay stopped out or dropped out, the less likely they are to finish, so it’s really concerning to see so many low-income students, first-generation students and especially we see disproportionately high numbers of Black students and Hispanic students who have stopped out. It’s going to be important for us to, not just for the short term but for the long term, we’re going to need to engage and enroll and reenroll students,” Keller said.
COVID is another factor as it is accelerating change in the broader economy.
“… A lot of the jobs that people have lost aren’t coming back, or they’re not coming back quickly, or they’re coming back but they look pretty different. And so we’ve got a lot of new jobs being created, tens of thousands of new jobs are being created across the state, and then we have a lot of displaced workers who are unemployed. But there’s a growing distance between the kinds of skills and credentials that displaced workers have and the kinds of skills that you need for the jobs, so it’s going to be really important for us to expand our ability to help people reskill and upskill so they can get back on their feet, get back in the economy, help take care of their families and help drive the recovery the state economy. But also for the longer term (to) help make sure that we’re going to be competitive, because these changes were already underway in the economy but they got accelerated pretty dramatically especially around how people use technology,” Keller said.
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