Milliken's Texas-sized Ambitions

Texas is growing, and higher education has to grow with it

Texas is growing, and higher education has to grow with it.

“You don’t create these institutions, these opportunities, these pathways overnight,” said J.B. Milliken, the newly appointed chancellor of the University of Texas System. “We have to be getting it right today, improving graduation rates. But we also have to be thinking on a grand scale in the decades ahead.”

Milliken outlined parts of that grand vision in a conversation with College Board CEO David Coleman, kicking off the 2018 Forum in Dallas, Texas. He talked about projections for another 22 million residents in Texas over the next three decades, placing greater demands on the state’s higher education system.

“We are certainly going to be far, far short of what we need in the decades to come,” he said.

Making that case to policymakers and the public will mean owning up to past shortcomings, especially around completion rates. Milliken said that in his long career in public service, he has seen the national focus shift from boosting enrollment to improving on-time completion.

“We are not doing the job we need to do on graduating students,” he said. “Too many of our public institutions have graduation rates that are unacceptable.”

With deep experience serving public university systems in Nebraska, North Carolina, and New York City, Milliken holds a broad view of what higher education can accomplish. He noted that 70 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in the United States are awarded by public colleges, meaning state systems have extraordinary reach in promoting economic mobility.

“Not only do we change an individual's life, we change generations of lives from then on,” Milliken said. “We change whole communities.”

The City University of New York System, which Milliken led from 2014 to 2018, has earned widespread praise for vaulting low-income and first-generation students into higher income brackets. Groundbreaking data from Stanford economist Raj Chetty helped produce “mobility report cards” for colleges across the country, and CUNY institutions were among the strongest.

Much of that success came from non-academic supports — flexible financial aid, mentoring and advising programs, simplified class schedules. Milliken pointed to UT Austin as another school that has made great strides in graduation rates by focusing on student supports.

“It’s a tremendous success story,” he said. “We’ve got to do much more of that.”