Continuing its focus on workforce development, Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce held its first State of Higher Education luncheon on Wednesday at the PalmWood Event and Conference venue at the Frost Tower in downtown Fort Worth.
The event linked up the heads of three higher education institutions in the region in a panel discussion to discourse the changing landscape of colleges and universities.
The panelists for the event were Eugene Giovannini, Tarrant County College Chancellor; Victor Boschini, Texas Christian University Chancellor and Vistasp M. Karbhari, president of the University of Texas at Arlington.
About 100,000 students are currently enrolled in the three institutions, which stimulates the local economy and provides a qualified talent pipeline to local businesses.
However, the student population has diversified into a more “non-traditional” form in recent years. Be it age, ethnicity, gender or occupational status, the average college student today looks and thinks different, all three panelists said they acknowledged.
And, the changes could impact the business community of the present and future.
Here are some of the topics discussed and responses the panelists delivered:
Challenges in making sure students are career-ready
Boschini: The biggest challenge that we have is more on the societal issue – teaching them how to operate in a diverse environment and that they won’t always get their way.
Karbhari: There is a great need for packaging people who have a background in art. You and I buy packages in the store not because what’s inside it, but because of how it’s presented. [Our] students learn about art, but simultaneously, they’re learning about packaging, they’re learning about business, they’re learning about engineering.
We’re trying to balance great academic rigor with preparation for the workforce across all our majors. I don’t think we have a challenge. The challenge is how to get more of our students working for you, rather than working for companies outside Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
Giovannini: One of the lenses we’re looking through is for us to be student-ready. Not necessarily the student being college ready because they all come from all different walks of life and background and they have different personas. We actually study those personas and see, in fact, what types of programs and services we need to offer to ensure that we are an institution that is student ready. Because, if we’re not, they won’t stay around.
Importance of business partnerships
Karbhari: [We need] partnerships where it’s truly a partnership with intent rather than “we need an intern, so come and see us and we’ll hire you and then we’ll see what happens after that.”
What the student really needs – not as a replacement – but on top of that is a mentorship that comes from the corporate world. There are so many of our alumni who are doing exactly that. They come back and spend a few hours, once a week or once a month, to talk to the students so that they understand … what does it take to be successful in your career and what path did you face.
Supporting non-traditional students
Boschini: They don’t need the same things as the traditional 18-year-old undergrad. So, we have a special orientation for them and a lot of support services. Especially our veterans, they need more than we have been providing right now.
Karbhari: The Idea Center. It’s meant to actually take our transfer students and some of our non-traditional students and make sure that we have a single stop for them rather than going from pillar to post. Because we have to do things that support them from their first day. When you look at this diverse population, you have to do the entire curriculum differently.
Giovannini: We have courses on multiple campuses and an online course. So, they are doing what convenient. They work in one place, they live in another. So, multiple different options, if you will, to experience.
Barriers to finishing a degree
Giovannini: The first thing is really good academic and career advisement, so students understand exactly what they’re wanting to do. But then the barrier is life. They have jobs, they have children. Some can manage that, some have more difficulty. The root barrier that we spend a lot of time is transportation, childcare, housing. And those accommodations are fundamental.
Karbhari: There’re two types of barriers. One if life and the other is our attitude. We tend to believe that students need to graduate in a certain period of time, doing certain things because we did it that way. But if you have a “regular student,” a student say who goes to UTA, a four-year degree might not be in their plan. We got to make it possible for them to finish in five or six.
Boschini: Generally, we need to look at students more holistically than we were used to in the past. We have to change our attitudes, most of us were traditional.
People judge us by how many of our students graduate in 4 years, 5 years or 6 years. They don’t get any credit for that. They’re looked at as slackers when really, they’re not.
Value of college education
Boschini: I can show you study after study that still proves that people with college, people with Master’s earn more throughout their life. I don’t think that’s the important part. I think the important part is teaching them [life lessons]. That’s how to operate in a diverse environment, how to understand they might not have the right people all the time. That’s what I think is way more important for us to teach them.
But that’s very hard to sell to a parent.