Walter Wendler, West Texas A&M University President and John Sharp, The Texas A&M University System Chancellor
First in a Series on Regional Universities
Regional universities in the U.S. educate 70% of the nearly 17 million students pursuing an undergraduate degree at public institutions, according to the American Enterprise Institute. Regional campuses are referred to by Brookings as “the workhorses” of higher education, and they are not dead. Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) data show that Comprehensive Regional Universities (CRU’s) enroll 40% of Texas college students. Texas has the most universities, public and private, of any state in the nation. One in four public universities are either research universities or emerging research universities and collectively rank fifth nationally in terms of quality. These “flagship” institutions are large. Student populations rival modest-sized cities, millions of dollars are spent on research (Texas A&M University recently crossed the billion-dollar mark – the first Texas university to do so), play college sports in the most competitive NCAA conferences in the nation, and claim thousands of alumni whose allegiance to their alma mater is legendary. However, according to the Washington Monthly, regional universities are still workhorses, and without them and community colleges, the research university quality is surrendered.
Half of the Texas students receiving Pell grants in 2019 attended a CRU. At research universities, that number drops to one-third. The workhorses provide educational opportunity to students from the two lowest quintiles of family income and propel them to the two highest by the time they reach their thirties, according to Jorge Klor de Alva; game changers impacting family trajectory for generations. Good bang for the buck that we see daily. Slightly over one-third of the students enrolled in regional universities are in the top quartile of their class. In research universities, it is two-thirds. In other words, capable students aspiring to personal and family enrichment opportunities often choose the workhorses for safety, (WT is ranked safest in Texas, 10th nationally) teaching, size, location or program selection. Three of four students considered to be “at-risk” enroll at CRU’s. Nationally public enrollments are similar. Surprisingly, slightly over half of the at-risk students attend research universities despite higher costs and admissions standards. Over half of the undergraduate degrees awarded to at-risk students were awarded by research universities. All this according to the THECB. The time it takes to earn a degree at regional universities is slightly over five years, on average. For research universities, it’s slightly under five years. The difference in time to degree is approximately five months. According to the CDC, Americans’ life expectancy is about 80 years, so the additional five months to graduation is less than .5% of a lifetime. And, according to a Yale study, college graduates live longer. If the extended time allows students to work and reduce indebtedness that may be a sound investment.
Nationally, indebtedness in comprehensive regional universities is less than that at national universities, according to U.S. News. Pell grants and high-efficiency help reduce indebtedness at comprehensive regional universities. At research universities, scholarships afforded through large endowments minimize debt for many.
Many Texas’ CRU’s seek to serve our state at the regional level. It is critically important as an extension of educational reach into every corner of Texas with high-quality educational experiences available for all Texans. There are 27 CRU’s in Texas. Legislation under consideration in this legislative session seeks to recognize the CRU’s in Texas for their distinctive missions. We use WT as an example because we know it well. Here’s what it means:
First, our commitment is to serve the top 26 counties of Texas as WT’s primary purpose. Our sustenance and excellence are owed to the Panhandle as our number one job.
Second, all WT research efforts will address regional challenges—regional intelligence, to meet regional needs, promoting individual and widespread economic benefit.
Fourth, principled working relationships with community colleges engage students who enter WT with associate’s degrees at low cost and high accessibility. Community colleges are not competition, but compatriot’s graduating developed, fully transferrable students with low to no debt.
Fifth, pipelines for advanced graduate study are in place to provide an opportunity for doctoral work at Texas A&M University.
Sixth, although online offerings currently represent 40% of the courses taught at WT, we strive to create an environment where 100% of faculty members live in the Panhandle. Faculty members teaching online are more effective when they also teach on campus and actively engage the regional community they serve. This is not COVID-19 driven but mission-driven and has been since the turn of the century.
West Texas A&M University defines itself as an emerging Regional Research University, a designation not known to any other university. WT’s distinctiveness will be guided by service to our region: Not a rose-colored vision for the future, but informed, practical attention to the people we serve. This defines a regional university and is different from a national research university. It is myopic to see the regional focus as limiting in any dimension. This is especially so in rural institutions. Over 20% of the U.S. population lives in rural settings. Texas is similar. Internationally, over 40% of the world’s population lives in rural regions, according to The World Bank. While originating in the Panhandle, WT’s applied research will have value across the state, nation and world.
WT is a constituent part of The Texas A&M University System. Excellence and responsiveness are strengthened when WT is tethered to the Panhandle, The Texas A&M University System and Texas A&M University simultaneously. A triad of talent, each strengthen all. No weak siblings. It is the nature of a strong organization. The Texas A&M University System, with its single American Association of Universities flagship and multiple regional institutions, is a unique constellation of excellence. There is no other quite like it. When fully engaged, benefits accrue to every corner of Texas. We know, appreciate and demonstrate this.
We believe our view of a regional research university makes sense and capitalizes on regional and organizational strength. This view is enlivened by WT 125: From the Panhandle to the World and The Pioneering Spirit: Pursuit of WT 125.
All of this is realized by being proud of who we are, what we do and for whom we work.
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/