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High stakes: Central Texas poised to take the next step in higher education

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Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2005 12:00 pm | Updated: 3:15 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Wendy Gragg

Killeen Daily Herald

Theres a lot riding on the local Tarleton campus becoming Texas A&M University-Central Texas economic development, independence, a real campus and the future of Central Texas residents like Jillian Mitki.

As lawmakers mull bills that would inch Tarleton State University-Central Texas toward the A&M name and a campus of its own, local leaders are reminding them of everything that is at stake, including the education of local people.

Mitki, a 40-year-old single mother of three, needs the options that an upper-level university provides.

Nearly every day, she drives from government housing in Copperas Cove to attend classes in Killeen. Now three semesters deep into her journey toward a bachelors degree in social work, Mitki said she wouldnt be in school if it werent for the local university.

I could not afford the tuition at other schools like UT, or the travel costs, or the time, she said.

Mitki will graduate in August 2006 and wont likely be around to see the future of Tarleton-Central Texas play out. She will get by by taking her courses at night in Shoemaker High School classrooms and shell get by with the bare minimum of course requirements because there is no room or manpower to expand the degree program, she said. But then shell have to relocate to attend a school that offers a masters degree in social work.

This provides the opportunity for me to get out of the situation Im in and create a better life for myself and my children, Mitki said.

Dr. John Idoux, executive director of Tarleton-Central Texas, said the school is trying to better serve Central Texans like Jillian Mitki. More than half of the schools students are female and the majority are non-traditional students, painting a picture not too unlike Mitki. The school also boasts the most racially diverse student population in the Texas A&M University System.

Shes one of 2,000 stories and one of thousands waiting out there, Idoux said.

That is where the legislation currently pending in the state House and Senate comes in. Local delegates in both bodies of the Texas Legislature are backing two types of bills.

The first is to lower the threshold enrollment which earns Tarleton-Central Texas independence and the Texas A&M name from 2,500 to 1,000 full-time student equivalents. The second measure is to authorize up to $45 million in bonds to begin development of a Killeen campus for the school.

Supporters of the threshold bill say reaching that magic enrollment number is the linchpin for the future of the school. The first thing the evolution to A&M does for the school is give it autonomy. It would become a stand-alone, full-service, upper-level university. Currently, the school is governed by Tarleton State University in Stephenville, with most decisions coming from that campus, roughly 100 miles away.

Independence is terribly important, said H.G. Pete Taylor, chairman of the Central Texas University Task Force. We need to be the masters of our own fate.

Even with the lowered threshold, Tarleton-Central Texas will still have a small hill to climb. Full-time student equivalent enrollment hovers just under 900 students. Idoux said the school isnt launching a special campaign to increase enrollment, but it is trying to meet the needs of more students, which he hopes would naturally bolster enrollment.

Every semester, were looking at how we can better serve the region here, he said.

Autonomy would be a big step toward meeting those needs better, Idoux said. The Killeen campus would be able to make its own decisions in areas like programs and scheduling.

Becoming Texas A&M University-Central Texas is also the move needed for the Secretary of the Army to convey land to the school for a future campus. The federal government has already authorized the Army to pass on to the school a 662-acre chunk of Fort Hood at State Highway 195 and Highway 201.

Proponents of the threshold bill say it will help combat both the schools limited presence and limited degree programs. Currently, 80 percent of Tarleton-Central Texas classes are held after 4 p.m., most of them in facilities at Central Texas College, Temple College and in Killeen schools.

Lowering the threshold enrollment is also a simple matter of equity, say community leaders. The threshold enrollment at the Dallas Pathway Center, part of the University of North Texas, was lowered to 1,000 full-time student equivalents in the 2003 legislative session.

As local community leaders try to persuade lawmakers of the bills necessity, one of their weapons is need. According to the Central Texas University Task Force, the school would serve a core population of more than 300,000 people in Bell and Coryell counties and more than 600,000 population in the surrounding counties. The closest public universities with uncapped enrollment are both more than 100 miles away, in Stephenville and San Marcos.

There has been some confusion in the community about whether the Central Texas A&M campus would be a traditional four-year college or an upper-level institution, such as Tarleton-Central Texas is today. Community leaders say that, while the future almost definitely holds a traditional college for the Killeen area, the community couldnt sustain it now.

One day I dont know when that will be well have a four-year university here with all the trappings, Taylor said. But to get that four-year school now, it would essentially close down the community college. We dont want to do that.

Members of the University Task Force have been insistent that the function CTC serves for Fort Hood through avenues like technical training, makes the college too important to put in jeopardy by competition with a four-year university.

Rather than compete, Texas A&M-Central Texas is expected to have the same cooperative relationship with CTC that Tarleton-Central Texas currently has. With many articulation agreements already between them, CTC and the Central Texas campus are publicizing their Texas Two-step plan and touting the seamless transition between the schools.

Killeen Independent School District gets in on the act by selling the Two-step plan to students.

Judy Picot, KISD coordinator of guidance services, is on the Partners in Education board, which promotes the Two-step plan. She said Two-step is represented as an option at college night, and counselors talk to students about the option and saving money while staying close to home.

Picot said the Texas A&M name alone could have an effect on students choosing to seek a local education. She is already seeing a reaction when students hear that the Killeen Tarleton campus will someday be part of the Aggie family.

I have noticed that perks up the kids just because theyre really familiar with Texas A&M. It would probably add to the interest of the students, she said.

John Crutchfield, president of the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce, is interested in Killeen scoring a university, but he is even more interested in the byproduct of that university an educated workforce.

Its the synergistic effect you get out of the creation of the university thats of value to the community, he said.

Crutchfield called the university an economic development incubator. Universities act as an economic catalyst because they house the technology that literally drives the economy today, he said.

The economic impact to the community is second only to Fort Hood in the long run, he said.

An A&M school would also be a good fit for the area because there are already links between the university and Fort Hood in areas like environmental work and family advocacy, said Bill Parry, executive director of the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance.

Youll see a lot of those being enhanced as a result of this partnership, he said.

While this years legislative drive in some ways mimics the same efforts in the late 1990s, proponents of the Tarleton-Central Texas legislation say the difference this year is the lack of direct opposition.

The 1996 efforts to establish a state-supported, upper-level institution received direct opposition from entities such as Abilene Christian University and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. The position held by a very vocal UMHB at that time was that a school in Killeen would adversely affect the Belton universitys enrollment.

Though the establishment of Texas A&M University-Central Texas could still impact UMHB, the Christian private school has stepped back from the fight this year.

Certainly a free-standing upper-level institution in such close proximity to UMHB potentially would have a negative impact on our enrollment, said UMHB President Dr. Jerry Bawcom. But the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor continues to serve a unique niche for students desiring private, Christian, quality higher education, and we will support what is good for higher education in all of Texas and certainly what is good for higher education in Central Texas.

Idoux, who has attended several hearings and listened to testimony from proponents of the bills, said he also is seeing less opposition.

If those folks listening to them have any serious philosophical problems, they sure didnt voice them, he said.

Consensus seems to be that any opposition in this round is likely to hang on funding concerns or the opinion of some that small universities arent the way to go.

I dont see any other effort around the state thats directed at us, Taylor said.

Things seem to be going well for the legislation so far, Crutchfield said, but the fight is nowhere near over.

Once thats done, weve still got more work to do. Its a daily task the community has to work on, he said.

Money still has to be found to turn the lights on, pay the bills, he said.

The Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce will add its voice to the chorus of support for the Tarleton legislation during a Capitol visit Tuesday. Chamber and other community members will host a news conference at the Capitol with local delegates, regarding the university legislation. They have also planned to brief legislative staffers and distribute information about the legislation throughout the Capitol.

Itll be a pretty intense day that day most all of it focused on Texas A&M University-Central Texas, Crutchfield said.

Many parties involved arent putting a date on the creation of a Killeen campus for TAMU-Central Texas. Idoux said that if the revenue bonds pass, a campus could come much, much sooner than anybody else thinks, though. If the bills pass and enrollment increases as everyone expects and the process continues through a master plan, design, bidding and construction, a physical campus could be just a few years off.

Sometime in late 07 or early 08, we could be sitting in a brand-new building. Thats the fast track, he said.

Taylor is reining his predictions in a bit. He would like to see the school be independent by the coming fall semester.

Idoux, who remains positive about the schools future, said he has to be a bit of an optimist to see the vision for the school through. But hes ready for the campus to become more than a dream.

Theres been plenty of talking its time for action, he said.

Contact Wendy Gragg at wgragg@kdhnews.com

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