Skip to main content

Higher Education Commissioner Talks COVID-19, Equity and Student Success

Published Sep 23, 2020 by Sophia Guevara


COVID-19 has had a significant impact to higher education institutions’ enrollment, operations, workforce and students. To understand how the public higher education institutions have responded to the pandemic and to hear the state’s perspective on higher education at a systems level, the Partnership hosted Commissioner Harrison Keller of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) for its annual State of Education event.  

COVID-19 Resilience

Commissioner Keller shared how the pandemic has impacted enrollment. He detailed summer increases in enrollment and declines in the fall, with the most vulnerable student populations being disproportionally impacted. Commissioner Keller outlined how the agency has accelerated initiatives within THECB, namely a program called GradTX 2.0., which seeks to re-enroll students who have not yet obtained a degree or credential necessary for success in the economy.  

The pandemic exposed the increased risk of unemployment for those without a degree or credential, whose employment is often linked to the service and retail industries. With degree or credential attainment, students position themselves for greater opportunity, increased earning potential, adaptability to a changing job market, and upward mobility. GradTX 2.0 will launch with as a pilot in the Houston region before expanding statewide.

Equity in Higher Education 

The role of higher education institutions in addressing equity across communities was also discussed. We know that a degree or credential of value is key to opportunity, so it is essential that institutions increase completion rates and support vulnerable populations. However, access to funding can often be a barrier to students’ completion.  As the most diverse city in the country, demographically, Houston serves a higher percentage of minority students in its higher education institutions yet the institutions receive less funding than others in Texas. Addressing this disparity, which is indexed in the state’s higher education funding formula, will allow Houston institutions to continue their work in educating and creating opportunities for all.    

Academic Excellence and the Economy

Finally, the Partnership announced the launch of the Greater Houston HUB (Higher Ed United with Business) initiative, comprised of Houston higher education institution presidents and business leaders seeking to develop the region as a center for academic excellence aligned with future economic growth. The HUB will serve as a vehicle to expand collaboration across higher education and business, while also allowing the Partnership to work with state agencies and organizations to bolster the region’s education ecosystem and talent pipeline. A system of strong higher education institutions is critical to maintaining the region’s competitiveness.  


To connect with the Partnership’s policy team on higher education issues, please contact Tiffani Tatum (Director, Public Policy). Learn more about Greater Houston HUB and Workforce Development in Houston. 

Related News


Re-Imagining Education and Career-Connected Learning — How Junior Achievement is Driving Opportunity for All

Career exploration and the skills to succeed have become a part of K-12 education across Texas over the last several years, but a new educational model within Houston Independent School District’s Stephen F. Austin High School is re-engineering high school education to make it more career relevant for students and increase their economic opportunity and prosperity. This school year, 3DE by Junior Achievement, an instructional model that utilizes competency-based case method to drive student engagement and academic performance, was launched within the school, expanding for students access and exposure to local employers and equipping them with knowledge and foundational skills for success in the business world. The 3DE model embeds career exploration and skills into educational curricula. Junior Achievement’s purpose is to inspire and prepare young people to succeed in the global economy, and the 3DE model engages the business community in a very deep way, said Joseph Burke, president of Junior Achievement of Southeast Texas and member of the UpSkill Houston executive committee. “Kids are more poised to be able to transition into the workforce when they’ve been engaged [with the business world],” Burke said. The model builds student-centric education around project-based learning in which students work throughout the school year on a series of real-world questions presented by sponsor companies, like whether to host an event at a certain venue or how to effectively communicate in a digital environment. Students work on the cases in teams, are coached by company employees (who volunteer as mentors) and present their answers to their teachers. The top four teams pitch their cases to a panel of company representatives who judge them and select a winning team. In the 3DE model, students also typically complete rotations with the sponsor company to learn about different careers and the industry. During their senior year of high school, students will complete an internship or consultancies. Students not only learn about the wealth of local employment options, but they also learn about business culture. This model can help address a disturbing finding in the recent WorkingNation American Workers Survey conducted by Frank Luntz and his company FIL on behalf of WorkingNation: Nearly one in three adult workers (31 percent) polled said they had never spoken about their future careers with a teacher or a parent. The 3DE model draws out the authenticity of learning, putting it in context of higher order thinking skills, Burke said. Case study work is not just tacked on to regular school curricula, but rather, it is woven into language arts, social studies, science and math lessons for an interdisciplinary approach to learning.  In this way, the 3DE lead teacher and case study work are supported by other high school teachers, according to Andrea Aguilera, 3DE partnership director at Stephen F. Austin High School. “Students don’t have exposure to business title terminology like what is a CEO, a CFO, or COO. Our biology teacher made this case vocabulary relevant by aligning it to her TEKS and created a lesson on cells. The vocabulary is then aligned with cells, tissue, organs, and how they work as a team. For example, the nucleus acts like a CEO,” she said, adding that a social studies teacher is instructing students on how to create PowerPoint presentations, which the students will need to use for their presentations in the next 3DE judging. “By having other teachers create lessons that touch on aspects of the case challenge, students are seeing commonalities of our strategies, themes, and tools being used in every single one of their courses, and its being constantly reinforced,” Aguilera said. 3DE launched in Fulton County Schools’ Benjamin Banneker High School, just outside of Atlanta, in 2015. In the years since, the school has seen significant gains in student performance and future opportunity including a 47 percent increase in its four-year graduation rate (to 92 percent), according to Junior Achievement. Students in 3DE cohorts across multiple schools have improved attendance. They are chronically absent about 38 percent less of the time than their host school peers, according to the organization. The 3DE model is now operating within 23 schools across the country. It was the success seen at Banneker High School in terms of student achievement, reduced absenteeism and greater teacher retention that made Jeff Miers support bringing the model to Houston. Miers was a Junior Achievement board member and an Accenture managing director at the time and recognized how the model fit with the consulting company’s “Skills to Succeed” commitment to empower people to change their lives. He also saw it as an exciting opportunity to transform the way Houston students learn. Accenture, Deloitte and Quanta Services are among the local employers that are sponsoring 3DE case studies. About 170 ninth graders at Austin High School (or, roughly 36 percent of the entire ninth grade class) make up the first 3DE cohort. The cohort purposefully mirrors the wider school demographics in terms of ethnic or racial makeup, background and academic achievement to about 5 percent, according to Burke. This helps gauge model effectiveness but also opens the door for students who lack the social networks or connections that can open doors to employment and opportunity. “The opportunity to interact and understand what companies are doing and working on real business problems opens the window into professions that underprivileged students might not otherwise see,” Miers said. The business coaches and judges represent a diverse population, come from different backgrounds and followed different pathways into their careers, Aguilera said. In short: they look like the students. “Sometimes for students the business world appears so far away and can seem unattainable and so what these business professionals are doing is showing students, ‘we were once where you were and you can also get here,’” Aguilera said.  Partnering to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace is more critical than ever, Burke said. “If we want to make diversity and inclusion gains then we have to begin with our education, and it needs to begin with the public schools,” he said. Learn more about 3DE by Junior Achievement.
Read More

What Do Houston Students Know About Good Careers in Our Economy? UpSkill Houston and Rice University Partner on Study to Find Out 

In 2018, Rice University School of Social Sciences Consulting Practicum approached UpSkill Houston to engage Rice students with real world problems. Based on focus group research UpSkill Houston previously conducted with school students and parents, we knew that Greater Houston confronted a challenge in changing students’ knowledge and understanding of good careers  that require education and skills beyond a high school diploma and less than a four-year college degree, and more generally, their understanding of the industries in the local economy.  The result—UpSkill Houston, partnering with the Rice School of Social Science, has commissioned Rice undergraduates to develop and implement an ongoing survey program that will produce and analyze quantitative and qualitative data on how UpSkill Houston is working to change perceptions and awareness about good careers in Houston.  Overall goals for the program now include: Gaining a greater understanding of what our student stakeholders know about careers; Improving our ability to tailor and focus our messages more effectively to students about careers in the economy; Developing a repeatable methodology for annually surveying the knowledge base of area students; Aggregating and analyzing the data from previous semesters to identify what trends may be developing; and, Thinking about what the results tell us from a geographic perspective. Now in its sixth semester, Rice undergraduate teams have reached more than 5,000 young people in middle and high school with this survey through various distribution methods, both in-person through individual schools along with BakerRipley and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Houston, and online with support from City of Houston’s Hire Houston Youth program.  The very first team created the survey and distributed it to Aldine, Alief, Houston and Pasadena independent school districts, while also conducting analysis on what survey returns were attainable based on a limited timeframe. Since then, each subsequent team has built off the previous work and used qualitative and quantitative skillsets to take new and useful approaches to effectively distribute and analyze survey responses. In addition, the teams continue to maintain data integrity and make this information useful to the business and education communities in the long term.  Now, the UpSkill Houston and Rice teams are at the point of looking for ways to systematize the survey and ensure sustainability. This includes exploring ideas around school district partnerships, automated distribution methods, formalizing within Rice research programs, and creating an online user experience. The teams also seek ways to leverage school partnerships to survey parents and test their awareness and perceptions against student responses.  Practicum Students Benefit from Experimental Learning Project This project benefits the public and the Greater Houston area; and it actively engages participating Rice undergraduate students in a real-world challenge. Also, many of these students have self-identified as having an interest in education and potentially the world of management consulting. The project is structured as a true consulting engagement; the scope and timeline are structured, and the students are tasked with making decisions along the way to shape true outcomes for their grades. Participating students engage in an experiential learning project associated with a real public-private partnership with tangible benefits to the Greater Houston area. Other benefits for the students include: Strengthening problem solving and tactical skills; Improving their abilities to survey and benchmark sample populations; and, Addressing a multifaceted topic touching society, education, the economy, business, culture, and communication. Community-University Partnerships Advance Greater Regional Goals UpSkill Houston uses research, analysis and engagement with critical stakeholders to focus on attracting, training and placing a new workforce into good careers within several sectors critical to the region’s economy, with enhanced awareness of these opportunities being the key to attraction. Learn more about the UpSkill Houston initiative.  
Read More

Related Events

Economic Development Event

UpSkill Works Forum: Unlock Opportunity for America’s Workers through Education and Lifelong Learning

Millions of Americans view the cost of obtaining more education or training after high school as an extreme barrier or very difficult challenge to overcome. According to one recent Strada Center for Consumer Insights…

Learn More
Learn More
Executive Partners