Last week, Texas partnered with the Western Governors University in the creation of WGU Texas, an accredited, online university offering degrees in more than 50 areas of study, many of them vital to meeting the demands of the growing jobs market here in the Lone Star State.
We all know attaining a college degree is among the most effective ways to improve anyone's quality of life, and ensuring a steady stream of college graduates ready to take on the high-tech jobs of the future is imperative to our mission of keeping Texas on top of the nation in job creation.
Innovative ways to effectively and affordably educate Texans, like WGU Texas, are going to be essential parts of improving access to higher education, but it's far from the only approach we've taken.
In 2000, Texas was falling behind the 10 most populous states in the proportion of students enrolling in college. Acting on recommendations of a commission I formed as Lt. Governor, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) adopted a strategic plan for higher education, Closing the Gaps by 2015, challenging our higher education institutions to increase enrollment by 500,000 in 15 years.
Closing the Gaps has been a success for students and their families, taxpayers and policy-makers alike. So successful, in fact, that in 2005 we moved the goalposts back further, increasing the target number to 630,000 by 2015. With enrollment up by almost 486,000 in 2010, our institutions are well on their way to meeting this revised goal, as well.
Even with this progress, we can't afford to rest on our laurels. The economic success we've enjoyed in Texas over the past decade has led to the creation of more jobs than any other state in the nation, and that's made it even more vital to continue producing college graduates who are ready to fill any job that may be required in an increasingly high-tech world.
Accessibility and affordability are key.
To that end, in September 2009, I issued an executive order calling for a review of cost savings at Texas colleges and universities. The Report on Higher Education Cost Efficiencies, released last November, contains recommendations that would save $4.3 billion over four years. During the recent legislative session, I encouraged lawmakers to implement recommendations from this report.
As a result, I was pleased to sign legislation ensuring students have a degree plan filed by the time they've earned 45 semester credit hours, helping them avoid taking, and paying for, non-essential courses. Another measure requires each school to study the costs of making four of the institution's most popular degree plans available online. As WGU has shown, Internet-based instruction is becoming increasingly effective and popular, and can largely operate without the need for extensive, or expanded, brick-and-mortar facilities and other traditional expenses.
That wasn't all we did during what was a successful session for higher education. Through the hard work and dedication of legislative leaders like Sen. Judith Zaffirini and Rep. Dan Branch, and with cooperation from agency leaders like THECB Commissioner Raymund A. Paredes, we put in place a variety of important new laws to boost higher education in our state.
* HB 9, which allows the THECB to consider graduation data - including numbers of at-risk students who graduate and degrees awarded in critical fields - in its formula for college and university funding recommendations;
* SB 28, which helps ensure students who have financial need and are ready for college receive TEXAS Grant awards;
* SB 162, HB 1244 and HB 3468, which improve classes that get new students up to speed;
* and HB 2910, which helps more students earn degrees in the critically-needed science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields through the T-STEM Challenge Scholarship Program.
Further, to make college more affordable, I advocated for and signed HB 2999, which allows universities to offer a fixed-tuition rate program for students who transfer from a two-year institution with an associate degree.
I also signed new laws that will help make college textbooks more affordable and will lower college administrative costs by eliminating duplicative reporting requirements.
I signed several bills that will help students choose the right university and pick the best classes. HB 736 creates a tool to allow prospective students to compare universities and requires institutions to provide better information online. I also signed SB 1726, which requires higher education institutions to provide students with an outline of what they'll learn in most undergraduate courses.
Continuing our efforts to help our emerging research universities attain Tier One status, I supported and signed HB 1000, which builds upon initiatives passed in 2009 and lays out how universities can obtain funding to help them become a nationally-recognized research institution.
Through our legislative efforts, and by embracing new innovative approaches such as WGU Texas, we are continuing to build upon the successes we have recently achieved to help Texas move even closer to meaningful change and improvement in higher education. Because of our collective efforts, more Texans will get a world-class education. That will keep Texas moving forward in job creation, medical advances and innovation for decades to come.