When Dr. M. Katherine Banks took over as the dean of Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M University and vice chancellor for engineering at Texas A&M University System last year, she encountered a few surprises.
Among them, she told the Tribune, was the fact that the flagship university in College Station was turning away as many qualified engineering students as it was admitting. "There seems to be a disconnect," she said. "The state and the nation need more engineers. We have qualified applicants here, and yet we're not growing. I felt it was time to take a step forward."
At a press conference in Austin on Wednesday, flanked by senior university and system officials, Banks announced that step forward. She plans to increase the number of engineering students enrolled at A&M to 25,000 by the year 2025. That's more than double the the current number, which is slightly more than 11,000 engineering students.
Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes called the initiative "an unprecedented initiative in higher education in my memory." He said that despite success in other aspects of the state's plan to boost its higher education outcomes by 2015, Texas has struggled with increasing the number of students graduating in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Banks said the growth would be accompanied by a new approach to delivering engineering education at Texas A&M. They plan to build new flexible laboratories and classrooms that can be made larger or smaller as needed. They plan to blend more technology into classroom instruction and to put stronger emphasis on entrepreneurship.
A&M officials will work with K-12 teachers to develop curricula intended to spark student interest in engineering, and they intend to work with community colleges to improve the transfer pipeline for engineering students. Banks also hopes to increase the university's retention rate in its engineering program to 75 percent, about a 20 percent increase.
"With this transformation, even with increased numbers, we will provide higher quality education," she said.
Striking the right balance between access and quality has been a delicate one in higher education
"I think that a lot of universities don't want to get out of that 10,000 to 11,000-student comfort zone," A&M System Chancellor John Sharp told the Tribune, "because they think smaller is more elite. And that's almost never the case."
Sharp also said that they did not intend to ask the Legislature for tuition revenue bonds for new buildings included in the plan. He estimated the cost would be roughly $131 million, a significant portion of which would come from private donors.
At the press conference, A&M President R. Bowen Loftin said that the deliberate nature of the growth would provide time to build additional infrastructure to account for new students without crowding out other programs. But he also said that, even though they are not asking legislators for a new building, lawmakers' help will still be needed.
"Growth has to be funded, in terms of the formulas, to make this work," he said.