Strength and Value in Regional Universities

Texas SB1295 recognizes the need for financial support and incentives for comprehensive regional universities that meet performance targets. It’s on the way to Governor Abbott’s desk. In all its forms, post-secondary education is a powerful force in improving job opportunities, economic development and citizen well-being. Benefits accrue to all people of Texas. A full-throated view of how different institutional perspectives can create a stronger 21st-century Texas requires an integrated, carefully thought-out confederation of institutions, from community colleges to world leading national research universities. Higher education is most effective, when vertically integrated, from high school graduation, through the PhD. National research universities have great value but cannot accomplish the educational purpose for Texas alone. Partnerships up and down the educational ladder provide better educational opportunities for all Texans.

Geography – Texas, vast and diverse as it is, must have a system of higher education that is sensitive to geographic diversity. Place is important to Texans. We are defined to a great extent by the places in Texas we call home – East or West Texas, the Panhandle, the South Plains, Central Texas, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Higher education that works for the 21st-century Texas must be responsive to geography, and regional universities can do that, if they will focus. For example, West Texas A&M University’s commitment to the large food animal industry is an example of geographic responsiveness. Effective relationships strengthen service capability and reinforce benefits up and down the educational ladder. Regional upskilling is essential

Emerging Disciplines – Traditional areas of study will always have value, but new areas and means of study are important. Higher education that works for 21st-century Texans must have courses of study at many levels, available to all, that are responsive to the changing work-world in diverse regions. For example, West Texas A&M University’s commitment to rural healthcare, through its relationship with rural-serving hospitals and clinics, creates a powerful commitment to emerging needs and regionally focused nursing disciplines. The profession is shaped, in part, by where it is practiced.  

The Digital World – Place, the land, is important to Texans.  Many will not go to a campus to study, but will study where they work and live. Beyond the recent move to distance learning as a COVID-19 safety measure, digital classrooms also can be an intentionally coordinated higher education opening that works for 21st-century Texas by delivering educational opportunities to the far reaches of the state through regionally responsive offerings. West Texas A&M University will begin offering a Master of Science in Agriculture this fall delivered completely online. It will respond to regional needs. For many food industry workers, an opportunity for advancement while continuing to work and raise families is powerfully important. 

Effective Partnerships – At no time in the history of public education has the demand for university responsiveness to business and industrial need been stronger. The diversity of industry and its particular needs must be addressed regionally. Higher education that works for the 21st-century Texas must partner across public and private boundaries in new ways. West Texas A&M University is working with the Texas Cattle Feeders Association to meet the expanding and ever-changing industry needs in an innovative, regionally guided response to the demand for an educated and trained workforce for beef production in the Panhandle. 

Community CollegesThe “front porches” for university education for many Texans are community colleges coupled to four-year institutions. Ideas and working relationships developed by regional institutions partnered with local community colleges create many seamless transfer opportunities. Effective transfer at low cost and high efficiency is appreciated by students, families, elected officials, policymakers and taxpayers alike. And, creates local economic impact. Regional institutions should have powerful, pace-setting relationships with community colleges to ease transfer, increase accessibility, decrease costs and link to world-class research universities. For example, West Texas A&M University has lively working relationships and affiliation agreements with Amarillo College, Clarendon College, Frank Phillips College and South Plains College to facilitate a strong and easy transfer relationship. Additionally, pipelines to graduate study at Texas A&M University from West Texas A&M University are available. Full vertical integration provides opportunity and access statewide to an array of study options. Trees with many branches.

High Schools – Working relationships with high schools evolve at the regional level. University leaders are duty-bound to engage high schools directly and build trust that encourages regionally driven attendance at comprehensive regional universities. West Texas A&M University has made an effort to appeal directly to students in schools in the Panhandle and the South Plains. Nearly 30,000 letters to students that recognize high school achievement have been sent. School leaders and families appreciate the attention to their students

A Tethered System – Deep interdependence means that Texas higher education for the 21st-century must be configured so that one institution’s success depends on the success of all institutions. Quality at each level is interdependent and tethered together to increase educational opportunities for all Texans.

Texas needs a view of education that appreciates the contributions up and down the ladder.  At the post-secondary level, institutional competition and the accompanying “mission creep” works to diminish the integration of various institutions towards the common goal of statewide service.  Post-secondary educational institutions endeavoring to be all things to all people is wayward whimsy that pilfers purpose. Students from Booker to Brownsville need a cohesive set of seamless opportunities that provide bootstraps to success for every Texan. A powerful serving mindset that recognizes needs across many levels of aspiration and potential, made possible in part by strong regional universities, elevates Texans’ aspirations and the future of our state.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at https://walterwendler.com/.

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