Keeping Texas Competitive

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Earlier this week, I had the honor of testifying before the Texas House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness, and I would like to share some of what I said with you there.

Public universities play an absolutely critical role in our state’s continuing economic dynamism. Every Texan, whether or not they ever set foot on a university or community college campus, benefits from an educated citizenry and the innovations that flow from those institutions.

But for Texas and Texas enterprises to grow, compete, and win in this knowledge-driven economy, we need to produce a lot more college graduates. The good news is we have the raw materials to do just that – a large and growing 15 to 19 year old population, and great universities and community colleges. The bad news is that today, Texas is below average when it comes to the percentage of young people who earn college degrees. 

The Texas Tribune recently published a story, using data from the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, tracking the educational journey of the 335,000 Texas boys and girls who were in eighth grade in 2005. Of those 335,000, a little more than half enrolled in college, but by 2015, six years after high school, just one in five – a little over 70,000 – had graduated. 

What if one in five had been one in four? That would have meant 14,000 additional college graduates in one year – earning more money, paying more taxes, fueling the success of more Texas enterprises. What if one in five had been one in three? That would have meant some 41,000 more graduates.

A lot of attention is being paid to where Amazon is going to locate its second headquarters. This second headquarters will likely bring tens of thousands of new jobs to some fortunate community. Well, contrast that with the infusion of ten or twenty or forty thousand new college graduates to our state, in a single year.

From my point of view, the biggest thing we can do to increase the economic vibrancy and competiveness of Texas is to bring our college graduation rates up to, and then hopefully above, the national average.

The stakes for the Texas economy are high. But lest we forget, our state’s economy is made up of millions of much-smaller household economies, for whom the stakes are even higher. The cost of a college degree is, and always will be, a topic worthy of great scrutiny, study, and debate. But there’s no debating the fact that the cost of not getting a degree has an even greater impact on our citizens and our society.

A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that over the course of their careers, workers with a bachelor’s degree earn well over $1 million more than high school graduates – despite entering the workforce at a later age.

Higher education changes a person’s entire life trajectory. A University of Maine study catalogued the benefits Americans with bachelor’s degrees receive compared to high school graduates who never attend college. Among other things, the study found that college graduates are 44% more likely to report very good or excellent health. Their likelihood of being a smoker is nearly four times lower. Their probability of being incarcerated is nearly five times lower. They are 21% more likely to be married, and 61% less likely to be divorced. College graduates live longer, more productive lives. They pay more taxes, and require fewer government services. They are much more likely to vote, to give to charitable causes, and to report being happy.

At UT, we’re proud of the role we play in creating a more educated, healthy, and engaged citizenry. This, of course, includes giving young men and women from lower income families the skills, knowledge and credentials they need to work themselves into better economic circumstances. Every Texan who is able to earn a degree and work their way up the economic ladder makes our state more vibrant, more prosperous, and more competitive.

The other big way public universities make Texas more competitive is through our research activities. More and more, big ideas power our knowledge economy. And our universities are, in effect, knowledge factories. At the UT System, we have invested heavily to bring some of the world’s greatest researchers to our campuses. We do this because these investments pay off handsomely, for us and for the state.

When we bring in a world-class researcher, he or she invariably sets in motion a cycle in which more researchers are brought in to round out their team, great work is done that attracts grants from the government, industry or foundations, innovations are born that benefit local partners and other enterprises, attracting more researchers and more businesses, to the community, accelerating the whole process, and generating lots of economic activity and success.

Knowledge for knowledge’s sake will always be a big part of our mission. But it’s up to us to demonstrate that the creation of new knowledge doesn’t just make us smarter. It touches and improves our everyday lives in tangible ways. And this knowledge positions Texas to compete in an economy in which innovation separates winners from losers.

As the largest university system in the state, we are proud of the role we play helping keep Texas economically competitive. In the areas where our state is falling short, we see incredible opportunities to help. In areas where we are doing well, we think we can do even better.

But of course, the thing that most separates Texas from the rest of the country is our spirit. Our pride. Texans love to compete, we love to win, and no challenge is too big for us. This Texas spirit attracts talented people from all over the world. And in fact, part of that spirit – to my mind at least – is our openness to people from other places.

Our public universities exist to give everybody – regardless of nationality, race, gender, orientation or anything else – a hand up in this world. Because everyone willing to work hard is worthy of help, opportunity and most of all, dignity. And anything that calls into question the worthiness, or the dignity – of fellow Texans or anybody else – is not only contrary to what I believe Texas stands for, it is self-defeating, because it will sap us of the spirit that propels both our culture and our economy forward.

We all have a stake in making Texas as economically competitive as possible. And the key, as in all great endeavors, is that we need to work together. By “we,” I mean our universities and community colleges, the pre-K through 12 community, business and civic leaders, the Legislature, and everyone reading this blog. 

By “we,” I mean “Texas.”

I want to thank you, as always, for reading. I’ll write again soon.