COMMENTARY: Re-engaging contemporary adult learners in RGV

BY STEVEN E. JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR

The 101: The Higher Ed Poll of Texas, released this 86th Legislative Session, revealed that 90 percent of Texans agree it is essential to have an educated work force if Texas’ economy, the second-largest in the nation, is going to continue to be competitive and productive in the future.

Currently, however, about 4 million Texans have some college education but no college degree. In Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties combined, there are almost 130,000 adults 25 years or older with some college and no degree. This raises an important question: If Texans are aware of the value of a college degree, then why do so many stop pursuing their education?

The 101 poll found that Texans consider cost the primary obstacle to obtaining advanced degrees. In addition to jobs and personal responsibilities, both student loan debt and transferring hours or credits are considered significant obstacles as well.

If the state of Texas plans to have a steady, well-equipped work force supporting our economy in future decades, then it is the responsibility of its higher education institutions and policy leaders to make obtaining a degree as convenient, accessible and affordable as possible.

South Texas College, a community college that offers more than 120 degree and certificate options, and the online, non-profit Western Governors University Texas are doing their part by formalizing a partnership together that creates affordable pathways for obtaining accredited bachelor’s and master’s degrees in high-demand fields including business, health professions, information technology and teaching.

Through this partnership, STC graduates, faculty and staff will now receive a 5 percent discounted tuition at WGU Texas and exclusive partner scholarships, valued at up to $2,000. Additionally, students transferring from STC can expect a comprehensive transfer policy, so their hours and credits will carry forward at WGU Texas.

WGU Texas, which pioneered competency-based education, is especially well-suited for adult students who come to college with varying levels of learning styles and knowledge. The entirely online university currently has the largest and most established CBE program in the state, with enrollment at more than 12,400 full-time students.

WGU Texas’ online CBE model is a highly effective way to reach non-traditional students across Texas. Our CBE model measures learning rather than the amount of time spent in a classroom seat. When students come to the program, they are able to apply real-world experience to their education and can accelerate their time to degree completion. CBE is ideal for these contemporary adult learners, who come to college with different learning styles, time constraints and a wide array of existing knowledge and skills.

As we learned from the findings of The 101 poll, there is an increased likelihood that with the right support, resources and access, Texans can complete their pursuit of higher-education degrees or certificates. But that access depends, in part, on being eligible for state-based financial aid.

During the 86th Legislative Session, WGU Texas worked with the State Legislature to advance the future of higher education by advocating for the passage of Senate Bill 1770/House Bill 3657 sponsored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie; and SB 1758/HB 3382 sponsored by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and Rep. Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio.

These bills would make more financial aid opportunities available to students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields like nursing, teaching, community services and science, technology, engineering and math, and to students enrolled in full-time CBE baccalaureate programs at non-profit and public institutions.

By opening the pool of state-based financial aid dollars to students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields and to all students enrolled in accredited, CBE programs, the Legislature will make a critical investment in human capital, our state’s most valuable resource — and in turn, strengthen our work force, our economy and our ability to compete in an increasingly competitive world.

It will be important for WGU Texas, community colleges and the Texas Legislature to continue re-engaging contemporary adult learners — an often-overlooked yet rapidly expanding student population — and help give them an opportunity to rewrite their stories by embracing a 21st century approach to higher education.

Dr. Steven E. Johnson is chancellor at WGU Texas, a state-endorsed, non-profit, accredited university launched in August 2011 to expand access to affordable, high-quality educational opportunities across Texas.