Significant progress has been made since 2000 in the area of encouraging Texans to attend and graduate from college. As I described in my last column, many key goals in the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) “Closing the Gaps” initiative have now been met.

To build on and expand upon this progress, the THECB has developed a new strategic plan with the overarching goal that at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have a certificate or degree by 2030, hence the name: 60x30TX (“60 by 30 Tex”).

The 60 percent goal is driven by expectations regarding what the economy and workplace of the future will require. Some well-informed people think that to fully meet the needs of the business complex, we will need to reach 60 percent even sooner. The 25- to 34-year old age group was chosen because it is an indicator of the economic future of the state and its ability to remain globally competitive.

The 60x30TX plan is overtly focused on students. While Closing the Gaps included goals related to research dollars and teaching excellence, for example, the current plan is more about getting more students through school with marketable skills and manageable debt. One reason for the choice of goals is recognition that Texas is slipping. While decades ago, Texas’ young adult population was ranked reasonably well, that is no longer the case.

Clearly, achieving this objective is no easy matter. The proportion is a large increase from the current level of around 34 percent of Texans in the 25-34 age range who hold associate’s or higher degrees. Furthermore, demographic patterns are increasing the challenge. The population of Texas, particularly in younger age groups, is becoming increasingly Hispanic, and Hispanics (along with African Americans) have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education. Currently, about 43 percent of Texans ages 25-34 are Hispanic, with 39 percent white and 12 percent African American. In 2030, an estimated 52 percent of Texans in that age group will be Hispanic, with 29 percent white and 11 percent African American.

More than 60 percent of Texas high school graduates of all backgrounds are considered economically disadvantaged, and those with lower incomes are generally less likely to pursue higher education. In addition, Texas Education Agency data indicate that Hispanics and African Americans make up more than 60 percent of K-12 students, and, as noted, a smaller proportion of these groups have historically tended to choose higher education. Clearly, it is imperative to find ways to increase higher education attainment among these large student populations which have historically been less likely to attend college in order to meet the goal.

It is important to note that this goal is not limited to individuals earning an associate or bachelor’s degree (or higher) through traditional classes at two-year and four-year colleges and universities. For some students, a better path will be earning a certificate in a shorter or competency-based program. Associate degrees can also be earned through dual credit or early college high school programs. Online programs must also play a role.

Another aspect of the plan is that it addresses completions rather than enrollment. A second goal is that in 2030, at least 550,000 students will complete a certificate, associate, bachelor’s, or master’s from an institution of higher education in Texas. A current problem is that thousands of people enroll in higher education institutions but fail to finish, and part of increasing completions will be finding ways to decrease the numbers of students who fall by the wayside. The plan notes that practices to encourage individuals with more than 50 semester credit hours (but who have stopped attending) to return and complete a degree or certificate should be developed.

Another aspect of the plan is that it focuses on marketable skills. After all, the primary reason most people attend college is to improve their job prospects. The goal is that by 2030, all graduates from Texas public institutions of higher education will have completed programs with identified marketable skills. Some degree plans (such as certain liberal arts majors, for example) are less directly and obviously tied to the workplace than others; even so, people with those degrees are learning extremely valuable workplace skills such as critical thinking, communication, and more. These programs are vital to long-term creative progress and quality of life, and must not be drowned in a sea of supposed pragmatism. The THECB plan places the burden on Texas higher education institutions to increase students’ awareness of the marketable skills embedded in their academic programs, and to document and communicate the skills acquired.

Another bold aspect of the new strategic plan is that undergraduate student loan debt will not exceed 60 percent of first-year wages for graduates of Texas public institutions. Achieving this goal involves a spectrum of possibilities ranging from controlling tuition costs to helping students make better choices as to how they spend their resources, which could involve anything from finding ways to reduce student costs of living to getting out of school faster by being very efficient with degree plans. As unpleasant as it may sound to lawmakers and some others, it is also going to require increased funding and tangible support of higher education goals and the workforce of tomorrow.

Clearly, the success or failure of the 60 percent goal hinges on the decision process of young Texans. The 60x30TX plan sets forth specific strategies to encourage higher education, including aggressively promoting college attainment to students and parents prior to high school. Education and curriculum delivery systems (such as competency-based programs) can also make higher education available to a broader and changing population. In addition, high-quality education programs for educationally underserved adults can play a role.

For prosperity in Texas to be maintained or enhanced, it is crucial that workforce quality keeps pace with the evolving needs of business and industry. From an individual perspective, it is critical to have marketable skills to be able to find quality jobs. The 60x30TX plan is ambitious, which is exactly what we need.