Walter Wendler, West Texas A&M University President and John Sharp, The Texas A&M University System Chancellor
Third in a series on Regional Universities.
Comprehensive Regional Universities (CRU) are the quiet centerpiece of the Texas higher education constellation. Often founded as teachers colleges like West Texas A&M University, others evolved from night schools, technical schools and even community colleges. Nationally, over 40% of the historically black colleges and universities are CRU’s. Typically, regional institutions serve the greatest number of underrepresented students. Additionally, most local, state and national public officials have college degrees, many from regional institutions.
WT is focused on regional needs, regional students and responds to regional industries. We are developing strong relationships with regional schools and community colleges. Regional universities are leaner in administrative costs. Some national research universities have seen increased cost inefficiencies over the past decade. At WT, we aspire to conduct limited and sharply focused applied research built on industry relationships and regional needs.
But, regional institutions have challenges. Twenty years ago, public colleges received about 50% of their total funding from state appropriations. In the last decade, that has dropped, and in some cases at public research universities, is now less than 10%. For CRU’s state appropriations are shrinking too. Considering the impact of regional universities on upward mobility, they are a scalpel to cut away inefficiencies and create high returns on student and state investment.
Who are the students at CRU’s? Where do they come from? What are their characteristics? They are different. At WT, the average age of our students is closer to 30 than 20. The perception of all college students as 18 to 22-year-olds in class full time, socializing on Friday night, and attending football games on Saturday misses the mark.
In a comprehensive study by Elizabeth Zach, Nontraditional Students At State Comprehensive Universities: A Case Study, she describes nontraditional students: About half are not tethered to parents purse strings, most are over 25, one in four are employed full-time and one in four are parents. These are “Not your father’s Oldsmobile” college students, and, a “your father’s Oldsmobile” university won’t work. They are a new breed and desire a better place in the jigsaw puzzle of a free society. Many are coming at it from a different angle from our counterparts in 1968. More students who are older, married or single parents are looking for employment opportunities and promotions return to college, often online, to better themselves and their families to pursue the American dream. That dream, like the jigsaw puzzle piece, requires an exact fit. Pursuit of it was noble 200 years ago, and it’s noble now.
Traditional students, straight out of high school, will still find a treasure chest of opportunity at CRU’s provided by agile, lean and flexible organizations. Nontraditional students will typically fill bandwidth and study predominately online. Traditional students will fill classrooms and study predominately on campus, with a full slate of traditional college experiences. WT’s campus life and intercollegiate athletics are powerful compliments to excellence in academic pursuits. WT’s goal is a fifty/fifty split between on-campus and online. Each group will benefit from direct and indirect association with the other enriching diversity and the range of college experiences for all.
None of this suggests international universities, such as Texas A&M University or the University of Texas, serving higher proportions of traditional students are not critically important to the States prosperity. Rather, circumstances demand that we value the power of each type of institution in service to all. Studies suggest that nontraditional students enroll at comprehensive universities rather than flagships because of the attention to things less important for many nontraditional students—football games and erudite lectures on the changing nature of the American family, may be of questionable utility. In the first case, for its lack of impact on the single mom and her two kids’ needs and aspirations, and in the second, because she could write a book on the changing nature of the American family if she only had the time.
The attention afforded CRU’s highlights the value of differentiated roles for universities in Texas. The laser-like focus is required for the international flagship, the CRU, and the small rural community college to meet the value proposition. One “post-secondary education” bucket won’t hold all well. Smearing the edges of distinction benefits no institution. Mission differentiation was at the genesis of the California Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960 and continues to be imperative. Strong leadership is required to differentiate mission positively.
As a member of The Texas A&M University System, WT aspires to serve the Texas Panhandle as an effective regional university that is practically minded, leading to personal fulfillment, jobs and local economic development.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at https://walterwendler.com/.
John Sharp is the Chancellor of The Texas A&M University System. Read more at https://chancellor.tamus.edu/.