Six lessons for making the most of the future of education in Texas

“You have to be able to adapt and adjust and pivot,” says college counselor Tara Miller.

By Laura RiceApril 22, 2024 9:00 am, ,

If you search for the top employers in almost any city in Texas, tops among them will likely be hospital and school systems: K-12 and colleges and universities.

A quick glance into the crystal ball shows that’s probably not changing anytime soon: The state’s growing, remember?

And a closer look at Texas census data shows its population is also younger than the national average – so the demand for teachers, in particular, is going to continue to be important for a long time.

But as important as teachers are (and that cannot be overstated), this segment is aimed at a different question: what and how should we be preparing Texas’ future workforce for the jobs of the future?

And, spoiler alert, we’re also not focusing on some of the potentially huge changes to Texas education here — such as so-called education savings accounts (AKA school vouchers).

Lesson 1: Don’t throw out the good with the bad in online learning.

Texas Standard first profiled Sofia Moore in 2020 as part of coverage about the impact of COVID-19 on graduating high schoolers.

“The Friday before Spring Break we just didn’t go back to school – and we haven’t gone back since,” Moore told us then.

At the time, she wasn’t so impressed by online classes, which she said weren’t nearly as fun or engaging as in-person. She was concerned that college would be the same way.

“I’m going to be so disappointed if my introduction to college is through a screen,” Moore said.

As it turned out, she didn’t really get on campus until her second semester. But now, as she’s about to graduate from UT-Austin with a degree in history, she says she’s come to appreciate some of the benefits of online learning.

“There definitely have been advantages,” Moore said. “I think that you should definitely keep all of the improvements that they’ve brought to accessibility in the classroom, especially with the recorded lectures. That’s been phenomenal any time that I’ve had to miss class. And it’s actually encouraged me to value my health.”

» Texas Standard special report: The Future of Work in Texas

Lesson 2: When it comes to higher ed, prioritize financial fit.

Back in 2020, Moore was considering going to community college before UT so that she could save on tuition. While that’s not what she ended up doing, she says the cost of her education wasn’t something she ever shrugged off as a thing to worry about later.

“I think that college is supposed to be a stepping stone, and when it comes at such a cost, it can’t be the stepping stone it should be,” Moore said.

Perhaps it’s the recent headlines about college debt, or just the rising costs themselves, but Moore is far from alone among her peers in this line of thinking, at least among those students who are paying close attention – or who have an adviser like Tara Miller.

“I think that should be the first question you think about when thinking about college fit is financial fit, too,” Miller said.

And Miller said institutions of higher learning need to be clear about total cost, far beyond just the acceptance letters.

“Financial aid offices need to be staffed to the max to help these families,” she said.

Miller has spent her career connecting students with higher education, spending four years at Austin Community College and 16 at the Austin Independent School District. She’s now working at DePaul, specifically with transfer students.

Miller went to community college herself before transferring to UT. And if she has one message to everyone that’s almost as important as paying attention to financial fit, it’s this:

Lesson 3: Stop only praising exclusivity.

“We should celebrate community college students the same way we do four-year college students,” Miller said. “Because, you know, sometimes people choose for economic reasons, academic reasons, health reasons, family reasons, whatever have you … Community college is there for various things. And it doesn’t have to be the plan B; some students start, you know, ‘this is my plan.’”

It seems simple to celebrate all efforts toward further education or skills training. But humans seem to love primarily celebrating exclusivity and lists and rankings.

Miller says the priority should instead be connecting students with what it is they’re really looking for.

“If your sole goal is to get a job on Wall Street, then I guess maybe you’re looking at a few schools, but most people aren’t in that field and they’re not looking to be in that field,” she said said. “So look at where you can have real engagement with your professors, research opportunities, or travel abroad or whatever it is that you want to do.”

For students who don’t yet know what they want to do, Miller recommends picking a college where you don’t have to declare your major right away. And she encourages exploration – both when students get to a college that’s a good financial fit, and hopefully even before then.

An exterior building shot with the words

Renee Dominguez / KUT

The Austin Community College Highland campus.

Lesson 4: Collaborate to allow for more exploration.

Expanding opportunities for high school kids for both exploration and specialization was exactly the motivation behind the Rural Schools Innovation Zone.

About five years ago, districts in South Texas banded together to form the zone. It’s now made up the Freer, Premont, Brooks County, Agua Dulce and Benavides school districts.

Each district has high schools serving about 200 to 400 students each, and a vast majority of those students are considered economically disadvantaged. But Executive Director Michael Gonzalez says they didn’t want their students to miss out on the variety offered in bigger districts so, through both transportation options and online options, they’re sharing resources.

“The purpose was to give opportunities for our rural education students that otherwise would not have been there had we not pooled our resources,” Gonzalez said.

Brooks County shares its programs in welding, construction, electrical heavy equipment operations and HVAC. It also offers a JROTC program with the Navy.

Down the road in Premont ISD, students can learn about cybersecurity, robotics, drones or to someday be a teacher themselves. In Freer, it’s focused on healthcare: Students graduate with EKG, phlebotomy, patient care tech, and certified medical assistant certifications, Gonzalez said.

He said the programs are based in part on jobs currently available in surrounding communities – and those they hope to attract.

“Our next step is to have a renewable energy academy that’s going to be hosted in Benavides,” Gonzalez said. “So hopefully a solar plant, wind turbine situation will start being a little bit more attractive to coming down to South Texas.”

The Rural Schools Innovation Zone in South Texas was the first of its kind; similar efforts have since sprouted up in the Permian Basin and around Waco. And state lawmakers passed HB 2209 during the last legislative session to formalize the Texas Education Agency’s role in incentivizing and supporting such collaborations.

Gonzalez says the idea is as simple as making sure all students have access to however they define future success.

“Should it need to be at a post-secondary institution, we try to set our kids up for that,” Gonzalez said. “Should it be that they need to go into the workforce, well, we have programs for that also.”

But that leads nicely to another lesson:

Lesson 5: Honor lessons learned.

Though collaboration and increased opportunity thanks to online learning advancements are great, college counselor Tara Miller says we need to make sure that the credits students stack up actually count when they need them to.

“Partnerships, pathways guaranteed,” Miller said. “I think if more students are starting at community college, whether or not they go straight into the workforce or they decide to then transfer, that transparency from the get-go needs to be available for those students right when they start.”

But what should students be learning to prepare them for the jobs of the future?

The best answer may be whatever gets them excited.

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Lesson 6: Learn to love learning.

Of course, there are new degree programs designed to fulfill current and anticipated gaps in the workforce. Take Texas A&M’s new degree program in space engineering, the climate system science bachelor’s program at UT, or UTSA’s first dual degree in medicine and AI.

Artificial intelligence – is that going to mess up everyone’s plans?

Sofia Moore isn’t changing hers.

“I think that those fears are valid, and especially when the field is changing so much and those jobs might be taken by computers,” she said. “But I don’t think that those computers could ever do the job that people do, especially in creative work. I just don’t see it at all.”

Miller’s advice to students also isn’t changing.

“If you want to go into anthropology or study Spanish, yes, let’s do that. If you want to be an engineer, let’s do that,” she said. “My goal isn’t to steer them into a job that needs filling.”

She reminds us that students have always needed to be prepared for jobs that don’t exist yet. And that doesn’t necessarily mean a skillset – the bigger goal is a kind of mindset.

“The love of learning, the adaptability and the creativity that comes along with a higher education program – you have to be able to adapt and adjust and pivot, if you will, because it’s going to change,” she said.

And she said embracing the importance of continuous learning applies to all of us, no matter our age. For inspiration, look no further than Eloisa Tamez, who graduated from UTRGV in 2022 with her fifth college degree – at the age of 87.

“I’m just having too much fun learning,” Tamez said.

And that, it seems, is the ultimate lesson for the future of Texas education: to make sure that learning spaces for students of all ages, interests, abilities and means provide room for the spark of inspiration that drives a continual love of learning.

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