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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. 

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Houston Employers Partner with Education to Invest in Future Talent

This winter, Brazosport ISD announced a new major giving campaign to support career and technical education (CTE) programs and named Dow Chemical as its first major campaign backer. The company has pledged $2.5 million toward the district’s $5 million goal, according to the district. Dow has been a longtime supporter of the district’s Systems Go Rocketry Program and FIRST Robotics teams, providing both monetary grants and Dow mentors to work with students. These will be housed in the new CTE Center, according to the company. It has also supported district CTE programs through its “Project Lead The Way” and “Dow Gives Education Grants” programs to help the district offer new engineering and cybersecurity pathways, and for various STEM projects, respectively. Dow’s commitments are recent examples of major Houston-area employers investing resources into K-12 career and technical education programs to improve facilities and opportunities for the region’s students. These investments illustrate the commitment of employers in strengthening the pipeline of local talent and building viable pathways from the classroom to good careers, especially for craft trades with high-demand projections over the next several years. The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) lists electricians, welders and cutters, HVAC mechanics and installers, and pipefitters among its top 10 targeted occupations statewide; engineers of various types, software developers and network and computer systems administrators join the list in the Gulf Coast region. Education programs that expose students to these and related trades and allow students to get a literal feel for the work and industry can help students make informed career decisions. In 2019, MAREK launched its MAREK Construction Academy program in partnership with Houston ISD and Houston Community College (HCC) allowing high school juniors and seniors to earn dual high school and college credit and gain valuable, on-the-job training through paid summer internships. Students gain experience installing drywall and framing along with blueprint technology and other skills. Students who complete the program graduate high school with National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) industry credentials, an OSHA certification and an opportunity to work with MAREK, along with a high school diploma and a Certificate Level 1 in Construction Management Technology from HCC. The program was modeled on a similar electrician “pre-apprenticeship” program between TRIO Electric, HCC and Spring Branch ISD that has since expanded to Alief ISD in the Houston region along with school districts in Austin and Fort Worth. S&B Engineers and Constructors is taking a different approach to engage students in career exploration and education. During the 2019-20 school year, volunteers from S&B spearheaded a committee of volunteers from major employers including Turner Industries, Dow and Worley, among others, to hold an industrial craft competition in partnership with seven area school districts as part of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. This competition, piloted last year but now an established part of the Rodeo, challenges student teams to construct industrial skids. Students learn through the months-long exercise how to use technical skills common to industrial construction, including how to follow plans, submit requests for information (RFIs) and meet industrial safety expectations. The project helps teachers keep up with industry practices and standards, as well. 3DE by Junior Achievement creates a partnership between education and business and fundamentally changes the high school instructional model. The 3DE model, launched within Houston ISD this school year, builds student-centric education around a series of real-world questions presented by sponsor companies, such as Accenture, Deloitte and Quanta Services. Sponsors serve as mentors as students work through the case-study projects, and students complete internships or consultancies with employer sponsors during their senior year. The model will be introduced into a second district school next school year. (Related: Re-Imagining Education and Career-Connected Learning — How Junior Achievement is Driving Opportunity for All) Dow, MAREK and S&B Engineers and Constructors are employer-champions among the more than 130 employer partners in the Partnership’s nationally-recognized, employer-led UpSkill Houston initiative, which mobilizes the collective action of employers, educators and community-based leaders to strengthen the talent pipeline the region’s employers need to grow their businesses and to help all Houstonians develop relevant skills and connect to good careers that increase their economic opportunity and mobility.   Get involved with the UpSkill Houston initiative.  
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