MCALLEN, RGV – The head of Western Governors University Texas says community colleges will have a key role to play if the state of Texas is to succeed with its ambitious 60x30TX higher education plan.

The overarching goal, as approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, is that by 2030, at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have a certificate or degree.

“Community colleges are the future of this state,” said WGU Texas Chancellor Steven Johnson, in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

“They are the institutions that are going to educate the students of the future. If you look at who is enrolled at community colleges today, it looks like and is the future of the state. Those are the students that are going to be the future workforce of this state. And the state’s plan, 60x30TX, which is the higher education plan for Texas right now, certainly will only rise or fall on the success of community colleges in Texas.”

Johnson spoke about the future of higher education in Texas while visiting South Texas College on Monday for an articulation between WGU Texas and STC. He was one of the signatories to the agreement. The other was STC President Shirley A. Reed.

Told about Johnson’s comment that community colleges are the future of Texas, Reed said: “They always have been. It is nice that Chancellor Johnson has reinforced this message. Texas’ strategic plan, whereby 60 percent of adults 25 and over will have a certificate or a degree by 2030, how is that possible without community colleges? It is not possible. We all know the direct relationship between educational attainment and your compensation. A better prepared workforce drives the economy and drives social mobility.”

Reed said she was not surprised Johnson stressed the importance of community colleges because he comes from a community college background. “He understands and values the role of community colleges,” Reed said.

Before joining WGU Texas in September 2017, Johnson was senior vice president and chief operating officers for the Texas Association of Community College. In this role he was key advisor for the 50 community college chancellors and presidents in Texas.

THECB’s 60x30TX plan has three other top goals. One, that by 2030, at least 550,000 students in that year will complete a certificate, associate, bachelor’s, or master’s from an institution of higher education in Texas. Two, that by 2030, all graduates from Texas public institutions of higher education will have completed programs with identified marketable skills. And three, that by 2030, undergraduate student loan debt will not exceed 60 percent of first-year wages for graduates of Texas public institutions.

Making higher education more accessible

Texas was one of the original founders of WGU, with then-Gov. George W. Bush signing on in 1997. The Texas affiliate was created in 2011 via an executive order from then-Gov. Rick Perry. So, there are eight state affiliates within the WG model. It is a national university but there are eight state affiliates and Texas is one of those.

WGU Texas has four workforce-focused colleges, with bachelor’s and master’s programs available in each. Its business college is the largest, while its two fastest growing colleges are information technology and health professions. It also has a teachers college.

In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, Johnson spoke in-depth about the agreement WGU Texas has signed with STC.

“Today is about the students here in the Valley. WGU was founded over 20 years ago by the western governors of the United States. The notion was provide opportunities for students that might have place-bound needs, of staying put and moving through access to affordable higher education.

“So, today is about WGU of Texas signing an agreement with South Texas College that will both make the transfer pathway seamless for students coming into our bachelor’s and and master’s programs.”

Johnson said an added incentive for STC students, staff and faculty signing up with WGU is that financial support is available.

“We will be offering a five percent discount for graduates of the college, as well as all faculty and staff. In addition, we have scholarship opportunities for students as well. Now already we are a very affordable university. Our tuition is based on a six-month term and it is about $3,200. So, for a full year it is just a little over $6,000. That is before any discounts or scholarships. So, it is two-fold, clean, good pathways for students to come to our university at an affordable rate.”

Johnson pointed out that WGU is a fully online, competency based institution.

“So, that measures a student’s ability to master material and demonstrate competency rather than the time they spend in a seat. A typical student in Texas is somewhere around 32 or 33 years of age, has some college, an associate’s degree or certificate, but not a baccalaureate yet. And so they come to us with the ability often times working in their field to move through material faster than your average student with a traditional age. What that means effectively is they can come to us and sometimes complete their bachelor’s degree is less than two years, saving them time and moving them towards a credential even faster.”

Asked why the focus on community college students, Johnson said:

“Community colleges enroll almost half of all students in this state, over 700,000 students. I think its an opportunity to link those students to another alternative pathway to a baccalaureate or master’s degree. I think what is unique about us, having been founded by governor’s, and being a non-profit organization, is we were created by governors to help states solve state problems. Help them build a workforce they need within their state. And so, certainly an online university that is competency-based is not for every student. But it is a viable pathway for many students who need to complete their degree and don’t have time to spend on a typical 16-week semester sitting in a seat that measures that. So, it is really an effective way for some students.”

Johnson said the WGU Texas-STC partnership is the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley.

“We came down late last fall and met with Dr. Reed and her staff to begin the process of creating this pathway. This is the first agreement we have signed in the Valley. We will be working with Texas Southmost College as well, and TSTC in Harlingen. My background is in the community college world. I know the value and the history of this institution and I knew it was an institution I wanted to sign early on, if we could.”

Johnson added: “We are really excited to be here.”

In her interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, STC President Reed said Western Governors University is a “very high-quality institution with a strong track record.”

She said: “They are very experienced at working with community college students. They understand the quality of the programs community college students have completed. They respect the quality of these programs. And they are very eager to recruit them to take them to the next step.”

Reed said STC students who have an associate’s degree can go to WGU Texas and earn their bachelor’s degree. If they have a bachelor’s degree they can earn their master’s degree. “This is especially critical in high demand fields such as cyber security, information technology, nursing, healthcare. And, of course, they are all available online,” Reed said.

Reed hopes STC staff will take advantage of the tie-up with WGU Texas.

“We have a large number of employees who began at the college without any higher ed. They did not have a degree. Through our programs they have earned their associate degree. Many are now completing their bachelor’s degree. This is an opportunity to move to the next step. Get the associate’s degree, move to a bachelor’s program, and then move into a master’s program. Once they complete a master’s degree program we are optimistic they will be able to return to South Texas College as faculty members.”

In particular, Reed believes STC’s professional technical employees will benefit from the new agreement with WGU Texas.

“I cannot tell you how many but we have a massive IT department. Those individuals have earned with associate’s degree from us. Many are getting a bachelor’s degree. We want them to go on and get a master’s degree,” Reed said.

“Not to mention our graduates and our former graduates. We have been graduating about 5,000 students a year. Those students are out in the workforce and they would benefit from going to the next level. And their employers would like them to go to the next level.”