AUSTIN — In a live taping of the KERA public broadcasting podcast Think on Friday, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp and University of Texas System Chancellor J.B. Milliken discussed the future of higher education and the challenges facing the two largest public university systems in the state.

At the core of Texas public universities is the mission to provide an education to the masses, but as the state’s population grows and changes, that mission can become more difficult to provide.

With the addition of 380,000 new residents in Texas last year, the simple response when asked if the schools are ready to meet the accommodation needs of new students is “We have to be,” Sharp said.

How new students are accommodated, though, will have to change, he said during the event at Austin’s Driskill Hotel.

One of the key elements, Sharp said, is using community college partners through Engineering Academies and traditional transfer students.

The regional Engineering Academies, he told the live and listening audience, allow students who are qualified to attend Texas A&M in College Station but cannot leave home to co-enroll in the university’s engineering program and community college. Students take their math, science and core classes at the community college, while taking engineering courses from Texas A&M faculty who teach on the community college campus. Then, after one or two years, the student can then transfer to A&M to complete their degree.

He also noted the addition of the RELLIS campus in which the 10 Texas A&M University System institutions — not including the flagship campus in College Station — and Blinn College have partnered to allow students to earn their degrees from the four-year institutions without leaving Bryan.

Milliken agreed with Sharp, saying the purpose of higher education is to meet the need, no matter how quickly that need expands.

“We know from the [Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce] that within a decade, 100% of all new jobs require education beyond high school,” Milliken said.

He also acknowledged the role community colleges play in addressing the problem caused by the state’s rapid growth.

Milliken noted 35% of the students enrolled in the University of Texas System transferred from a community college, and that is something that will become more and more prevalent across the country, he said.

“If the demographer of the state is right and we double in population in the next 30 years, we’re probably not going to have double the number of these traditional university campuses that we have today,” he said. “We’re going to have to find other ways to do this. We’re going to have to be smart about it.”

Now that institutions of higher education know graduates may change jobs seven or eight times during their career, Milliken said, retooling opportunities for nontraditional students is an important aspect for those enrolling in college or going back to college after the traditional college-going age.

“We’re going to see more and more of not just two-year degrees and four-year degrees and master’s degrees; it’s certificates,” he said. “It’s short-courses. It’s the kind of thing people are going to be able to access throughout their career, just in time for that next promotion or that next job opportunity and that’s a space where I think we’re all trying to fill.”

That retooling and advanced training is what the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service provides now, Sharp said.

As students are weighing taking out loans to pay to attend a flagship university or attend a community college for two years, Sharp said, he encourages people to attend community college and transfer into a four-year university.

“At the end of it, nobody’s going to care,” he said. “All they’re going to know is that you got the degree that they’re interested in. I think community colleges are great. They play a wonderful role.”

The podcast discussion also delved into the importance of mental health for college students, with both Sharp and Milliken acknowledging the importance of putting more research and funding toward mental health.

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