December 5, 2007
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you. But most of all, I want to thank this Hispanic Scholarship Consortium for all the work you do. In opening higher education to those who embody the future of Texas, you have perhaps the most sacred mission, the most noble calling, that public service offers. I share your mission because I’ve seen what it has meant to my family, and because I know what it means to this state and this nation.
Don Watson, my father, was raised by a single mother. His father had died when my dad was very young. He was what we’d call today “economically disadvantaged”. Times were, as they say, very hard.
Daddy did finish high school, but there was no incentive, no encouragement, no “reason” to pursue a higher education. So, in the end, there was hardly any decision at all. He simply didn’t go to college. And life rolled past him.
As you all know well, that decision my father never made could have determined his life. It nearly did. In his late 20s, almost a decade after leaving school for what he figured would be the last time, knee-deep in work and marriage and kids and bills, Daddy looked around and saw doors starting to close on him. On us.
I can only imagine what a hopeless feeling that was, to think that a 10-year-old decision – and hardly even a conscious one – could keep him from setting his own path and achieving all of the things he was capable of.
Lucky for us, Don Watson took what must have been a tough, scary step. He went to college. For years, he worked full time, raised kids, juggled the virtually non-existent money, and went to school at night to get a degree.
I often wonder what his life would have been like, or, for that matter, what my life would be like today, if he hadn’t done that.
I’m even luckier in that I never doubted, or questioned the possibility, of going to college. In fact, Daddy made it pretty clear to me that I didn’t have much choice in the matter. He was determined that I would have the options he almost lost and walk through doors that almost closed to him.
That fundamental truth – that it’s worthy to invest in children and in education – was coded into my DNA along with everything else my father gave me.
Imagine how great the Great State of Texas would be if all children shared that fundamental certainty. No matter what they look like. No matter where their parents are from. No matter where they live-whether in the burbs or in the barrio; in the gated community or in the ghetto. No matter how much money their families have. No matter what world they know or think they know. No matter, even, what they expect for themselves and their own children.
Imagine what would happen, and what we could become, if every last one of Texas’ children knew in their bones that they had the talents and could find the means to get a college degree.
Some would choose not to, certainly, and some of those folks will succeed with or without a higher education.
But even more, I think, would choose college. Even more would make a run at the enrichment and prosperity that higher education offers. Even more would become entrepreneurs and innovators who could help us live better, cleaner, richer lives than we would have imagined possible without their success. Even more would enliven and enrich every corner of this state, from The Valley to The Gulf to The Panhandle to El Paso.
Some dismiss this vision too easily. They say, “Not everyone needs to go to college.” They note that for most of their lifetimes, Texans haven’t necessarily needed a degree to find a foothold in the middle class or to add to our state’s prosperity.
And, perhaps in the past, that was true. But Texas can no longer afford to treat higher education the way it has for decades. We can’t continue to slash budgets, allow tuition and fees to rise, and try to get by with whatever previous generations gave us, particularly as our economy grows around college-educated workers.
Nor can we continue to ignore our fastest-growing demographic group, not with a wave of young Hispanic men and women preparing to crest into the workforce.
So I believe it’s in our best interests to help these students succeed. But even more than that, I believe they deserve the same choice that Don Watson discovered and that I grew up with. They deserve to have confidence in their own abilities and trust that they can spend four years in class without bankrupting themselves or their families.
That combination of self-assurance and faith – that is hope. Hope carried my Daddy and his children and grandchildren to a new or different life. Hope is what you give to students and families with every scholarship, tutoring program, and counseling session.
Hope matters. Hope is your mission. And hope must become our state’s mission, as well.
At Austin High School, where my oldest son will graduate next year, I think a lot of kids show up – as they did for kindergarten – knowing that school probably won’t stop when they turn 18, or 17, or 16. They were born and started school, as I did, knowing that college was real, it was achievable, and it could make an incalculable difference in their lives.
And, really, thank God for those kids and their parents. Texas is successful today, in no small part, because of them.
But this state can’t count on just these kids anymore. Our economy is changing at speeds that amaze everyone from Ivy League economists to engineers to factory workers.
We need more college graduates than we ever have, and it’s getting harder and harder to lure people away not just from traditional rivals like San Francisco, New York, and Boston, but also from Shanghai, Dublin, and Bangalore.
The problem is, we’re not producing enough homegrown, university-trained workers and entrepreneurs to meet our needs. Instead, we cut our university budgets to the bone and hope we can get by as we always have, ignoring the reality that the old way just isn’t good enough for the new economy.
In this way, I think Texas is facing a similar decision to the one my father faced something like 50 years ago.
The truth is that, right now, we’re probably doing OK economically. In a lot of areas, honestly, we’re doing pretty well. There’s no doubt that the easy thing to do would be to do nothing about expanding or even maintaining access to colleges and universities. And too often, that’s been the path that the legislative leadership has chosen.
Their hands-off, no-new-investments approach is obvious in any number of statistics. In 1985, the state paid 55.4% of its higher education costs. In 2006, that was down to 35.1%. The rest comes from a number of sources including, increasingly, tuition.
Furthermore, just 26 percent of Texans aged 25-65 have made it as far as a bachelor’s degree. For that matter, Texas ranks dead last in the percentage of population over 25 with even a high school diploma.
There’s no question that we can do better. I think even those who’ve presided over these declines would agree with that.
The question is, should we? Is it worth the cost, the time, and the effort to invest in higher education and prepare for everything that we know is coming?
You know how Don Watson would answer. But I think generations of previous Texas leaders, including those who presided over Texas when my Dad was making his decision, would respond the same way.
The success of our higher education system was built on the millions of acres that were set aside in Texas’ earliest days to support it. Generations that followed re-invested in the University of Texas, Texas A&M, and other universities, creating not just world-class institutions but also a pipeline to replenish our leaders and intellectual resources.
Even today, economists estimate that every dollar inves
ted in higher education puts at least another 5 dollars into the economy. Let me repeat that – every dollar that goes into Texas’ colleges and universities is guaranteed, guaranteed, to produce a 500 percent return.
No one who knows Austin, who has seen the dramatic growth and prosperity that have re-shaped this sleepy college town into a global technology hub, can possibly doubt the transformative power of higher education and our investment in it.
This power represents the single greatest hope for the future of Texas and Texans.
But we can’t simply generate it with new campuses and classrooms, more and better professors, or lower tuition. This is necessary to be sure
But, we also have to direct it to the people and places that most need it. You all, better than most, know that this step is the most important.
We know our future. We know that the face of Texas is changing. It’s time for our investments to change with it.
Texas is a fast-growing state, and we have our Hispanic population to thank in large part for that. By 2020 – just a dozen years – Hispanics will become the largest demographic group in the state. By 2040, they will be our majority.
This isn’t just a large and growing population – it’s a young one. In the last census, the median age of Texas Hispanics was 25 and a half. For whites, it was 38.
That’s the good news – and make no mistake, this growth, this youth, is good and hopeful news, if you are someone who cares about Texas’ future.
But we can’t just sit back and watch this growth, governing like we always have and hoping for the best.
We must prepare for it.
We must target these students who stand as the future of our state and invest in them as furiously and optimistically as if they were a technology start-up in Austin or a new market in Asia. We must embrace them and give them the tools they need so that they – and we – will succeed and prosper in this new century.
And this doesn’t mean wagging our fingers, rehearsing empty platitudes, blaming their parents, or threatening to shut down their schools.
Nor does it mean recklessly throwing money at a system that needs repairs along with investment.
It means being smart and sincere. It means being energetic and creative.
And it means providing hope. I will say it again, and I will say it often: hope matters. But, in this area, for this mission, hope matters most of all.
Parents must be so hopeful for the possibility of higher education that they will help their children prepare for it without fear of another closing door.
Children must be so hopeful that they will work for this goal knowing that if they try hard enough, they will reach it, and it will make a difference.
Schools must be hopeful enough that they will develop these young minds, knowing the efforts of teachers and students will not be in vain.
And the state must be hopeful enough that it will build new universities, knowing there will be students to fill them, and improve existing ones, knowing the investment will pay off in ways we can hardly imagine.
So when I and others tell you that your work will determine the future of Texas, please know that it’s not because of some cold notion of demographic inevitability.
It’s because my hope, my children’s hope, and my state’s hope, is in your hands. Please let me join you – let us all join together – in making that hope a reality.
Thank you, and God bless you.