POSTED: Thursday, May 23, 2013 - 8:49am
UPDATED: Thursday, May 23, 2013 - 8:52am
Texas public universities awarded more than 50,000 bachelor’s degrees in spring 2013, an increase of more than 5,000 from 2012, according to preliminary data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
The stats were revealed Wednesday in a presentation to House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch , R-Dallas, at the board’s Austin headquarters. Officials also used the opportunity to show off a new high-tech conference room that they plan to use to examine data related to their “Closing the Gaps by 2015 ” plan, an effort to bring the state’s higher education statistics in line with other states.
The total number of professional certificates — which take less time than an associate's degree and indicate competence in a narrowly tailored professional field — handed out by public institutions in 2013 actually droppedslightly from 2012. But increases in bachelor’s and associate’s degree production and the addition of data from for-profit career colleges into the board’s accountability system  actually pushed the total number of degrees awarded across the state to more than 230,000. That’s significantly beyond the board’s 2015 goal of 210,000.
The Closing the Gaps plan focuses on making gains in student participation, student success, excellence and research.
Branch, who was joined Wednesday by Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes and Fred Heldenfels, the chairman of the coordinating board, has pressured the coordinating board to be more in the habit of releasing up-to-date preliminary data. He appeared encouraged by the increase in degrees awarded and described the passing of the success goal as "a high-five moment."
It was not lost on the three men that the data was being released as the odds were rapidly declining that legislators would tie any portion of public universities’ funding to outcomes such as graduation statistics. All three have made the push for what is often referred to as "outcomes-based funding" a priority.
“Frankly, I had a couple of members tell me, when I told them we were doing better in terms of bachelor’s degrees, ‘Then why do we need outcomes-based funding?’” Paredes said of legislators.
Branch credited the push to implement an outcomes-based funding strategy with putting a focus on the need to improve outcomes.
“The ultimate point is not, ‘Did we have outcomes funding?’” Branch said. “If we encourage a cultural shift and change and get more outcomes, that’s what we want. That’s the point.”
Not all the data discussed Wednesday in the coordinating board briefing was encouraging, though.
Enrollment growth appears to be slowing — and even declining in some sectors. In fall 2012, the state’s community colleges experienced a drop of 20,000 students from the year before. To reach its 2015 goal of 630,000 students in higher education, Texas institutions need to grow by an additional 40,000 students in the next two years.
And the percentage of the state’s high school graduates enrolling in higher education in Texas — the coordinating board has trouble tracking those that leave the state — was 51.1 percent in 2010, 50.8 percent in 2011 and 49.8 percent in 2012.
Paredes noted that the trend was a concern for the board. But, he said, “if we were to pick one of our four goals that’s most significant, I think we’d all pick actual completions.”
On the whole, Branch described the information presented Wednesday as “an early indication perhaps that our focus on outcomes is causing us to be more productive with the people we have.”
The presentation was made in the board’s new “Closing the Gaps Planning Room," a former meeting and storage room that was converted into a high-tech facility where the staff can delve into data related to the Closing the Gaps plan.
“I think this room represents our commitment to looking at where we stand on 'Closing the Gaps' in real time on a day-to-day basis,” Paredes said of the facility, which cost roughly $17,000 to revamp. “We are going to use data even more effectively than we have before.
Coordinating board officials indicated that they hope the discussions held in their new planning room — where they hope to host more legislators, higher education administrators and chamber of commerce members — will help them make data-driven decisions about where to best deploy resources to, among other things, get enrollment trends on the right track.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune  at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/05/23/higher-ed-graduations-rising-enrollment-slowing/ .