Skip to main content

Watch: Lawmakers, faculty and students discuss the future of higher education

Margaret Spellings, Harrison Keller, Archie Holmes and more than a dozen others discuss student enrollment, college sports and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic at The Texas Tribune’s symposium on the future of higher education.

Lead image for this article

The Texas Tribune hosted a weeklong virtual symposium on higher education from Oct. 26-30, bringing together education experts, campus officials and policymakers to discuss some of the most pressing issues impacting higher education in Texas, including best practices in online learning, serving students in need, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, college sports and more.

Watch all of the conversations from the symposium and read highlights from the discussions below.

Texas Tech Chancellor Tedd Mitchell and Texas State University Chancellor Brian McCall discuss how they’re managing an unusual fall semester

COVID-19 cases have stabilized for now at Texas Tech University and Texas State University and respective chancellors Dr. Tedd Mitchell and Brian McCall are breathing a sigh of relief. Mitchell, a medical doctor, contracted the virus himself in early October and experienced mild symptoms. Now, the two leaders are thinking about the challenges that lie ahead during the spring semester.

The chancellors spoke to Matthew Watkins, the Texas Tribune’s managing editor for news and politics, about tough choices they’ve been forced to make to manage increased costs associated with the pandemic without traditional revenue streams like room and board.

Mitchell said higher education was already heading toward more online offerings, but the pandemic sped up that process. Both chancellors agreed there are benefits to improving and expanding online courses, even though the in-person experience is lost. But both also said students who need access to higher education the most could be left behind without improvements to statewide broadband service. That’s just one of a few points they’re preparing to make to lawmakers next legislative session as they make plans to argue why higher education should be prioritized during a session in which money will be tight. — Kate McGee

This session is supported by The University of Arizona, TEXAS 2036 and McCombs School of Business-University of Texas.

Texas Association of Community Colleges CEO Jacob Fraire and Prairie View A&M President Ruth Simmons say flexibility is critical during the pandemic

Texas Association of Community Colleges CEO Jacob Fraire and Prairie View A&M President Ruth Simmons lay out what is at stake for Texas if the most vulnerable students attending college are unable to stay on track to graduate because of the pandemic. In short, Simmons says, it's everything. The two leaders spoke with Sara Hebel, co-founder and executive editor of Open Campus, about the changes they’ve made to help struggling students stay in school, from more emergency aid and deadline extensions to mental health counseling and extra communication. And still, Texas community colleges experienced a nearly 10% decline in students this fall compared to last year.

They emphasized that strong state leadership is crucial and that lawmakers need to encourage higher education and workforce leaders to work together to make sure a generation of Texans do not fall behind. They suggested improving broadband access and stressed the importance of allowing vulnerable students to remain on campus to take advantage of support they may not have access to at home. Simmons and Fraire expressed worry that the pandemic could wipe out progress the state has made to improve the outcomes of low income students without continued support for higher education from the state. — Kate McGee

This session is supported by Bank of America, Trellis Foundation, Philanthropy Advocates and Educate Texas. Media support is provided by Open Campus.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller and House Higher Education Chair Chris Turner say Texas must prioritize higher education in pandemic recovery

Before the pandemic hit, some lawmakers were positioning the 2021 legislative session to be a “higher education session,” with big plans to overhaul funding for colleges and universities. COVID-19 has pushed some of those conversations to the side. But Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller and House Higher Education Committee chairman Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, told Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey that higher education needs to remain a priority next session.

In this conversation, Keller argued research institutions and university health centers haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve for their pandemic response. He said they’ll continue to need funding, as will community colleges and regional public universities that will help unemployed Texans learn new skills and reenter the workforce. Both Turner and Keller insist more investment in higher education will help Texas’ economy recover from the pandemic. As Texas works toward a goal of ensuring 60% of 25- to 34-year-olds have some kind of degree or credential by 2030, Keller said the state must also consider how it's helping older Texans who need access to training and development. — Kate McGee

This session is supported by Texas State University System, Texas Association of Community Colleges, TEXAS 2036, Raise Your Hand Texas, Educate Texas and Philanthropy Advocates.

Baylor University’s Sharra Hynes and Wil Del Pilar of The Education Trust discuss opportunities to expand higher education access online

The academic shift online across colleges and universities was swift and often chaotic last spring. Sharra Hynes, associate vice president and dean of students at Baylor University, and Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education at The Education Trust, shared with Texas Tribune higher education reporter Kate McGee that the response, communication and support for students since then has varied from institution to institution. Often, the neediest students attend schools with the fewest resources, exacerbating existing inequities between student groups. Del Pilar encouraged the state and federal government to set aside more funding to assist those schools.

Both experts said they worry most about the students they don’t hear from who may be struggling silently during the pandemic. Hynes pointed out that low-income and first-generation college students who need extra support often don’t know what resources are available to them. Despite these resources, many low income students are opting to push off higher education, which is concerning because statistically it’s unlikely they will return to the classroom, the experts said. They believe the pandemic presents opportunities to create more flexibility for online and hybrid course options, which can increase access to higher education for low-income and non-traditional students. — Kate McGee

This session is supported by The University of Arizona.

Margaret Spellings and Drexell Owusu discuss how to bridge higher education and workforce needs amid the pandemic

Former United States Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Drexell Owusu of the Dallas Regional Chamber see the pandemic as a moment to correct a long-standing disconnect that prevents higher education institutions from preparing students for actual labor market needs.

They spoke to Texas Tribune energy and economy reporter Mitchell Ferman about how to better include employers in developing applicable curriculum.

They also discussed how schools need to convince those without a degree or credential who became unemployed during the pandemic that college is a viable path forward for them. As Texans adjust to a new reality, Spellings and Owusu agree it’ll take everyone from employers and professors to the Texas Legislature and the federal government to make sure access to higher education isn’t interrupted, and students are actually prepared for the jobs employers need filled. — Kate McGee

This session is supported by Texas State Technical College, Texas State University System, Bank of America, Trellis Foundation and Texas Association of Community Colleges.

Texas State University professor Janet Bezner and UT-El Paso professor Guillermina Gina Núñez-Mchiri discuss new ways of teaching during the pandemic

College and university faculty are feeling burned out by the extra demands of planning and preparing courses for online — and sometimes in-person or hybrid — courses. Texas State University professor Janet Bezner and UT-El Paso professor Guillermina Gina Núñez-Mchiri spoke with Texas Tribune higher education reporter Kate McGee about how they’re balancing rigor with flexibility and compassion for students struggling to stay in school during the pandemic. They discussed food and housing insecurity among their students, some of whom can’t make it to class because they are working while attending school.

Both professors expressed relief that their respective universities provided flexibility to most faculty, allowing them to choose whether they wanted to teach in person or remotely this fall. Bezner is teaching a hybrid class where her students are split into groups that attend once a week in person. There are still unknowns, including how well students will perform this semester, whether first-generation college students will feel supported enough to continue and whether faculty have the endurance to continue in this current environment. — Kate McGee

This session is supported by Texas State University System.

College students Sara Brennan and Jasmine Khademakbari share struggles of attending college during the pandemic

College students have shown resilience throughout the pandemic as their courses shifted online. But Sara Brennan, student government president at the University of Texas at Dallas and Jasmine Khademakbari, president of the Student Government Association at the University of Houston, told Texas Tribune reporting fellow Sami Sparber that it’s difficult to ignore that they’re missing the in-person college experience they grew accustomed to as freshmen and sophomores. Both students say barriers to online classes continue to exist for low-income students or working students. They said many students might not have access to solid broadband and can’t always meet at the same time every week. The two student leaders lamented the loss of building connections with classmates and the struggle to connect with professors over virtual office hours.

Overall, both students said classmates are taking the pandemic seriously and cases have remained low on their respective campuses. Based on that, Khademakbari, a senior, advocated for in-person spring commencement next year. — Kate McGee

This session is supported by The University of Arizona.

Lisa Blazer and Ruth N. López Turley discuss how K-12 schools, colleges and lawmakers should work together to improve Texas’ college-going culture

As Texas continues to grow and change demographically, colleges and universities must adapt to be more welcoming to students who haven’t traditionally enrolled. K-12 schools must become a partner in preparing students to think about college, sometime as early as middle school. Those are just a few points Lisa Blazer, associate vice president for enrollment services at Texas A&M University and Ruth N. López Turley, director of the Houston Education Research Consortium and associate director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, emphasized to Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith as they discussed how well Texas is preparing students to enroll and graduate from college.

Blazer and López Turley said there are multiple interventions that K-12 school districts and higher education can implement to make sure the pandemic doesn’t harm an entire generation of students who want to go to college, but can’t find the resources to make it happen. López Turley emphasized the importance of college advisers to help guide students and rejected the notion that college isn’t for everyone. Instead, she said, the value of a college degree is more important now than ever. It is everyone’s responsibility to convince young students it’s worth the effort and cost, she said. — Kate McGee

This session is supported by Raise Your Hand Texas, Texas State University System and Bank of America.

Archie Holmes and Jamie Merisotis discuss how higher education can provide a high-value experience to students in a post-COVID-19 world

The current higher education climate seems bleak with nationally declining enrollment, especially among the poorest and most vulnerable students. The declines are especially concerning at community colleges, which traditionally sees an increase in enrollment as unemployed people return to school to learn new skills. Instead, students are working full time or pushing off college dreams. Meanwhile, others are questioning the value of the degree as they pay large amounts for a much more restricted college experience online.

Archie Holmes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Texas System, and Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, both told Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith that higher education remains vital to boost social mobility and train the next generation of workers. But there are ways the sector can improve to serve students with stronger quality online courses, they said. Merisotis also argued higher education needs to capitalize on building important skills like collaboration and empathy. Holmes said schools need to reinforce efforts to boost the number of students who actually complete their degree so they leave college able to earn enough to pay off student loans. But both hesitated to endorse free community college as the panacea that will solve the nation’s student debt crisis. — Kate McGee

This session is supported by Texas State Technical College, McCombs School of Business and Texas Association of Community Colleges.

Inline article image

Tribune events are supported through contributions from our investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.

Quality journalism doesn't come free

Yes, I'll donate today