Education is crucial to individual and societal advancement and success on many levels. Educated people are more likely to become contributing members of society and hold well-paying jobs.

Geographic areas with a more educated workforce have a decided advantage in attracting corporate locations and expansions. In short, prosperity and education are intertwined, and decades of data confirm the correlation for individuals, communities, states, and nations.

In recognition of this fact and with awareness of Texas shortcomings in educational attainment, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) spearheads strategic planning efforts aimed at improving the situation. In October 2000, THECB adopted “Closing the Gaps by 2015,” with input and support from educators as well as business and community leaders. I was pleased to analyze the potential of this initiative several years ago for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and found that achieving the plan goals of closing gaps in educational attainment between Texas and other states would make a difference of a million jobs compared to the status quo situation. As the program winds down and a new one begins, it is useful to briefly review its achievements.

The latest status report indicates that the state has achieved or is on pace to achieve most of the goals set forth in Closing the Gaps, despite deficiencies in funding educational programs and facilities. The goal of enrolling some 630,000 more students in fall 2015 than in 2000 will likely be met. The target for African Americans was reached in fall 2009, which is good news, though there have been some enrollment declines more recently. However, while Hispanic enrollment has grown more than any other group since 2000 (up in fall 2014 by nearly 15,000 students from the previous year), it looks like participation will not quite meet the target level. White participation has remained almost static as a percent of the white population and enrollment goals are unlikely to be met, while other racial/ethnic group enrollment levels have grown more than expected.

The goal in Closing the Gaps for success (award 210,000 bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, and certificates in one year) was met several years ago and has been exceeded by a significant margin. However, there are still gaps in some areas such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

As far as the excellence and research goals, Texas universities are ranking well among public institutions nationwide, though there is always room for improvement. In particular, it is important to keep working toward increasing the number of nationally recognized research universities. Such universities typically involve larger and more highly compensated faculties; additional research and associated activity funded primarily through federal and other external sources; a greater volume of spin-off companies, venture capital sources, and licensing opportunities; and a more highly qualified workforce to support technology-oriented growth. In addition, they attract young talent in the form of top high school graduates. Although several universities are making strides in this direction, Texas currently lags other states.

Efforts to attract more research funding and increase research and development (R&D) expenditures have not been as successful as hoped. The good news is that expenditures for R&D at Texas public universities and health-related institutions have risen notably since 2000 and reached $3.86 billion in fiscal 2014. However, the goal in this area was to increase the Texas share of national R&D spending, and that has not happened. While Closing the Gaps aimed to increase federal science and engineering research and development funds to Texas institutions to 6.5 percent of overall national R&D funds to higher education institutions across the nation, the most recent data (which is several years old) indicates that the Texas percentage has fallen slightly, from 5.5 percent in 2000 to 5.2 percent in 2012. The economic benefits of research are well documented, and the state would benefit from an expanded presence in this area.

Higher education can open the doors to higher pay and more rewarding work for Texas young people. At the same time, workforce quality is among the most critical needs of many businesses considering relocating or expanding. Enhancing higher education thus increases prosperity through many channels. It is crucial to keep building on progress to date, and a new strategic plan for higher education has been developed (60x30TX, which I plan to discuss in a forthcoming column). The concerted effort at strategic planning for higher education has been beneficial, and it is gratifying to see the successes of the Closing the Gaps initiative. Onward and upward!!