Rural folks produce the food, fuel and fiber that powers our state and nation. Texas dwarfs all other states in the nation in the number of beef cows produced, with over 4.6 million. Texas ranks fourth nationally in milk production, producing 15.6 million pounds in 2021. Texas leads the nation in natural gas production, producing nearly 25% of the U.S. total. According to the USDA, Texas leads the nation in cotton production, with 6.5 billion bales produced in 2020. While many factors lead to Texas’ standing as the furnace for American energy production, national and world standing is diminished without workers and leaders who appreciate and hold rural Texas values. Values such as hard work, personal responsibility, regard for others and family prosperity. These rural value systems sustain industries that sustain metropolitan America.
West Texas A&M University is the heart and soul of the Panhandle, and we are proud of our roots in this special place tucked into the top of the great state of Texas. We are genuinely Texas. Maybe the very best of Texas. Maybe the only real Texas, even in the face of its imperfections. Regional responsiveness is not something we run from—we run towards. WT’s regional research is committed to regional study “from the Panhandle to the world.” Rural countries such as Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Uganda have some of the highest percentages of rural populations across the globe. Even India is nearly 65% rural and the second most populous nation on the planet, with 1.4 billion people.
I have visited every high school in the Texas Panhandle—twice. I met people who are the epitome of hard work. Some of those encounters are detailed in the WT eBook, Considering College, where Chancellor John Sharp authored the forward.
The rural students of Roscoe Collegiate High School are unique partners with WT. Our partnership allows high school students to earn a bachelor’s degree without leaving their home community. I had the pleasure of presenting a WT diploma to one Roscoe High School graduate, Amanda Sanchez, in her hometown just one year after she graduated from high school, thanks to this program. In September 2020, The Dallas Morning News took note about this program.
The innovations birthed in Roscoe came from a partnership with Collegiate Edu-Nation. This organization leads rural school districts through the challenges of implementing the Roscoe model. Students can earn bachelor’s degrees in areas as diverse as computer information systems, finance and management. At the same time, they join the rural workforce, continue to care for their families and preserve the rural way of life. Especially timely is the rural teacher pathway that taps local talent and prepares them for the specific needs of the local district.
Several students have already earned their degrees and moved into graduate programs from WT and other universities. And the extremely low-cost model makes it possible for the school districts to provide 100% of the cost of these degrees to their students who complete them within two years post-high school.
WT now delivers the same opportunities to rural communities across the Panhandle and South Plains regions. Communities like Hamlin, Throckmorton, Floydada, Sunray and others are either already, or soon will be, offering baccalaureate opportunities to young people staying in those communities.
This approach is critical to reversing decades of rural “brain drain” that has sent the local talent to the metro areas, never to return. It depends on a deep partnership between the local community college and the local school district, strengthening the community institutions. CEN has proven the model, set forth the vision, and brought key partners from state, region and locale together in a cooperative working effort.
WT’s doctorate of education in educational leadership is unlike any other doctoral study in the nation. This program prepares leaders to serve rural schools. By identifying issues impacting rural teachers, students, ISDs, community colleges, universities and families, these scholars are looking for innovative ways to identify areas of improvement for issues impacting people daily. The WT Educational Leadership doctoral program is creating the Rural Community Leaders Fellowship. RCL Fellows will be selected from among long-serving, successful rural leaders who will become advisers to the next generation. They will shape the research in the educational leadership program and share their collective wisdom, gleaned from decades of work in rural areas across Texas and the broader Middle America. Noted for proven leadership excellence, RCL Fellows are specially selected for their ability to find and deploy solutions to critical problems and exercise soft influence across their community.
Texas, vast and diverse as it is, must have a higher education system sensitive to geographic diversity. Place is important to Texans. We are defined to a great extent by the places in Texas we call home—whether East or West Texas, the Panhandle, the South Plains, Central Texas or the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Higher education that works for 21st-century Texas must be responsive to geography, and regional universities can do that if they will focus.
As we all continue our quest to serve this great state, may we remember the importance of serving the smallest of communities—it’s making a difference.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns, with hyperlinks, are available at https://walterwendler.com/.
Dr. Brad Johnson is Clinical Professor of Education in the Terry B. Rogers College of Education and Social Sciences at West Texas A&M University.