Milliken, who became the leader of the 14-institution UT System last fall, is far from a doomsday prophet. He’s precisely the opposite: a realist and passionate advocate for the benefits of public higher education at a time when some question whether a four-year degree is worth the time and money. With a slight bit of irritation and a large dose of certainty in his voice, Milliken says, “I have little patience for that argument.”
To him, the question itself poses a false choice. “Most new jobs created require education beyond high school, and there is a point soon approaching where almost every job newly created will require education beyond high school,” he said. In other words, we are not turning back the clock to a time when a high school degree was sufficient.
Milliken’s point is that Texas needs to produce more of everything, from two-year certificates to four-year degrees to advanced graduate degrees. His view is backed up by business leaders who say they have more openings in some fields than skilled workers to fill them.
Milliken isn’t territorial, as one might expect from someone whose UT institutions award more than one-third of all undergraduate degrees in Texas and almost two-thirds of the state’s health professional degrees. The UT System enrolls more than 235,000 students at eight academic colleges and six health institutions and is one of the largest systems in the country. The demographics of the state demand that all educators pull in the same direction as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Better aligning of the courses taught in college classrooms with the skills required in the workplace is an important step, he says. This doesn’t mean just producing graduates with science, technology, engineering and math training. A liberal arts education still packs immense value, he says.
“We need engineers who have an understanding of language and history and culture, and we need English majors who lead our institutions with some technological literacy to be able to engage in the workforce,” he says.
“Employers I talk to tremendously value what we have referred to traditionally as ‘soft’ skills. They want a set of computational skills or coding skills, but they also want people who have the ability to work together, can communicate, can write.”
In his own way, Milliken himself represents the blend of disciplines. A lawyer by training, he has amassed an impressive resume in higher education administration that includes chancellor of the City University of New York, president of the University of Nebraska and a senior administrator in the University of North Carolina System.
At Texas, he succeeds former chancellor Adm. Bill McRaven, who led the UT System for three and a half years after a military career highlighted by organizing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Milliken says public colleges and universities must train students to constantly learn and adapt, “not for the first job they get when they walk out the door.” Paraphrasing Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, Milliken says “there is no such thing as tech businesses and nontech businesses. … There are businesses that are using every available technology to be competitive, and there are dying businesses.”
No institution wants to price students out of opportunity. Across the country, the cost of higher education is rising, and state appropriations aren’t keeping up, forcing schools to raise tuition and become more aggressive fundraisers.
“I tell people within university communities that I speak to that tuition is not going to be free,’’ he says. Still, “we should raise more private money and do everything we can to hold costs down.”
Milliken points to the University of Texas at El Paso as an example of a new way of thinking about education. From preschool to high school, kids — especially those whose parents never attended college — face hurdles that could derail their shot at higher education. Milliken says UTEP works closely with the local community colleges and K-12 school districts to improve the chances of students from low-income backgrounds at becoming the first in their families to graduate college.
The importance of a working relationship with community colleges can’t be overstated, he says. As more high school students take community college courses, it becomes increasingly important that those credits transfer to four-year institutions. And for those who think that community colleges don’t adequately prepare students for a four-year institution, Milliken says that is a fallacy.
“I think you will be hard-pressed to find evidence in the research that students do not do as well from community college as do students who start as first-time, full-time freshmen at four-year institutions. A lot of hard work has gone into aligning curriculum and course transfers. Our faculty are concerned with quality as I believe faculty at community colleges are.”
He says, “If we didn’t have community college transfers to four-year institutions, we wouldn’t have the capacity to provide the same level of education that we do today and we certainly won’t have the capacity to do it as we continue to grow.”
That speaks volumes about how education, whether in the neighborhood school or on a major university campus, must be approached as parts of a whole. Online education has to be a more effective option for students who must hold down jobs or can’t spend time in transit for courses that don’t fit conveniently into their lives.
“Where we need to get is online education that doesn’t require a physical presence, but that is high quality and cost effective, a moderate cost to students,” he said.
Public school districts also play a role in emphasizing advanced placement, early college or dual credit courses to give high school students a more certain pathway to college.
“We know that … they more likely to finish college if they’ve got a college course before they attend, before they graduate high school,” Milliken says.
The goal for Texas legislators, he says, should be to ensure all of these building blocks are in place, and that the end product is a workforce ready to fill today’s jobs and to create tomorrow’s jobs.
“I think we have a great opportunity that is going to define how successful Texas is in the future, and investment in public higher education is essential to the future of Texas.”
Jim Mitchell is an editorial writer and a member of the Dallas Morning News editorial board.
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