Higher ed board discusses funding possibilities in pandemic, seek to improve student transfer process

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) met this week to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on institutions of higher learning as well recommendations on improving the transfer process for students. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been taking its toll on students seeking higher education in Texas while they grapple with health and employment concerns. The state has committed resources to help keep students experiencing financial hardship enrolled. Earlier this week Gov. Greg Abbott announced that $118 million in federal aid will go to support higher education, which is in addition to the $57 million that had been previously announced for maintaining needs-based programs at colleges and universities.

The Texas Emergency Grant Program also has provided $710,000 in grants to institutions to support students experiencing financial hardships in addition to providing technical assistance to campuses trying to build out their own emergency support capacity. Harrison Keller, commissioner of higher education for Texas, assured the THECB that institutions were committed to their missions and to working with their students to adapt to their changing needs.

Online enrollments for the Summer were up 11% from last year and 7% over the past two years as job seekers looked to reskill or skill up to be more marketable in this new environment. “Higher education has a special role and responsibility in driving the economic recovery,” Keller said.

In March, the THECB developed a COVID-19 resource page and brought together an FAQ Work Group to provide guidance. Keller told the Board that COVID-19 was the largest disruption in higher education since World War II. They will need the maximum level of flexibility to rules and regulations to ensure the continuity of instruction. The FAQ Work Group has made recommendations on health and safety protocols for reopening and has urged a gradual reopening of on-campus instruction based on local conditions. They have also provided recommendations on campus services that students may need to access such dining and housing, since some students had no choice but to stay on campus when schools closed in the spring. The FAQ Work Group is continuing to collect reopening plans from institutions and will be posting them to its resources page.

THECB also received an update on work to streamline the transfer process between public institutions. There has been an ongoing effort to identify and remove obstacles to students being able to move from community colleges to universities to complete their four-year degrees. Some 70% of all first- and second-year college students are at a community college, making it the gateway to higher education for many Texans. That said, less than 35% of students starting at community colleges transfer to a university within six years. Some of the persistent challenges to students pursuing four-year degrees include misalignment between curriculums for degree programs, unclear processes, and lack of counseling support for transferring.

During the last legislative session Senate Bill 25 required two- and four-year institutions to report on when credits were transferred but not applied to a degree. The legislation also lowered the threshold for students declaring a degree plan to 30 credit hours and mandated that all institutions have at least one course sequence published for every degree that is offered. The THECB Committee on Academic and Workforce Success is currently working with institutions to improve their transfer systems and communications to create a friendlier and more accessible pathway for students seeking to continue their education at state universities. The THECB Committee on Academic and Workforce Success will have more recommendations for the Board during its October meeting.