UT System to Develop Work Study Program in Houston

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* Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.

HOUSTON — The University of Texas System plans to develop a work study program in Houston, partnering with companies to provide work experience for students, the system’s Houston Advisory Task Force announced Monday.

The program will take place on the more than 300 acres the UT System owns in southwest Houston. But that site won’t be home to a new university, task force members said Monday. State lawmakers from Houston had expressed concerns that a UT campus in Houston would compete with the University of Houston.

Assembled by UT System Chancellor William McRaven, the 18-member task force spent the last few months exploring new opportunities for the system to collaborate with Houston’s academic, medical and business sectors. Task force co-chairs Paul Hobby and Carin Barth — both prominent players in Houston’s business scene — made the announcement Monday at UT’s MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“I think there will be a rotation of students here from other institutions who need what Houston has to offer,” Hobby said.

He pointed to Houston’s energy, healthcare and aerospace sectors as prime areas for students to gain skills while also making valuable contributions to the industries. UT hopes to partner with private companies, as well as nonprofits and government entities, he said.

The system bought the land in Houston earlier this year with the vision of using the property as ground zero for new research, collaboration and education opportunities. The site will be a research and study site for the UT System’s 14 existing universities and medical schools.

Plans for the Houston site are currently focused on the work study program and an online course system, Hobby said. But he added, “Eventually, who knows what it will be?”

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, whose district includes University of Houston, said he’d like more information about the plans.

“The devil’s always in the details on this stuff,” he said. “They need to tell me what they’re going to do with specifics. Because something can sound one way and it actually morphs into another.”

Coleman previously criticized the UT System for buying the property in Houston without consulting local leaders.

“The objective I’ve had is that there not be undue competition in things in which we’ve already invested in,” Coleman said.

Welcome Wilson Sr., chairman of the University of Houston Political Action Committee, said he considers the UT System’s purchase an invasion of UH territory and suggested the task force delay its planning until the Legislature meets in January.

“I believe they need to coordinate with the Legislature and the system of higher education,” he said. “Every university cannot decide what it’s going to do on its own.”

Hobby argued there should be no concerns about competition, as Houston is an under-developed intellectual hub.

“Houston is dramatically underpopulated when it comes to college students,” he said. “There’s no way to say we have enough intellectual infrastructure in Houston. That’s just not a statistically defendable position.”

The goal of the work study program, Hobby said, is to reduce the mismatch of skills between education and workforce while also making college more affordable. Hobby pointed to a similar program at Georgia Tech as a prime example of UT’s aspirations.

Companies like Delta and Coca Cola partner with Georgia Tech because they both have something to offer the other, he said.

“This wasn’t philanthropy,” Hobby said.

The goal for UT’s work study program is similar, he said. “We have to inspire for-profit and nonprofit companies,” he said. “We want to put a plan out there that is so compelling that both private and public sector sources will be eager to fund it.”

The task force has not yet finalized any collaborations with companies. 

Online learning tools will be incorporated into students’ experiences, Hobby said. The task force is expected to deliver its final recommendations to McRaven in December.

Disclosure: The University of Houston, MD Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Texas System and Welcome Wilson Sr. have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/06/13/ut-system-houston-task-force-update/.

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