Walter Wendler has probably dined at more Dairy Queens and Allsup’s in the last two years than most people have in their lifetimes.
To get to know the communities his college serves, the West Texas A&M University president drove 14,000 miles through the Texas Panhandle and the South Plains to meet with students, teachers, and families. He visited more than 130 high schools — and, in every county along the way, he stopped in at least one of those two food chains. (His go-to order? He’s “fairly simple,” he says, so he recommends the vanilla milkshake.)
Before taking the job at West Texas A&M — a regionally oriented university with about 10,000 students — Wendler worked at
a number of larger public universities that draw students from across the country. To be an effective leader of a place like West Texas A&M, he needed a deeper kind of knowledge about the region around him.
On the road, Wendler talked up his university, of course, but he also listened. He asked students, elected officials, and other community members what they thought about higher education — and how West Texas A&M could help.
Here are three things that struck him about those conversations:
Students and families saw value in higher education, but they worried about how to pay for college without being crippled by debt.
- Wendler gave this advice: Don’t borrow more than you can afford. Don’t borrow anything in your first two years, no matter what. And don’t take on loans that total more than half of what you expect to earn in your first entry-level job out of college.
Many students are delaying college, in part so they can earn and save money for their education.
- One student Wendler met on campus worked as a certified welder for six years after high school to save money to get her mechanical engineering degree.
- The Texas Panhandle lags other areas of the state in college attainment. About one in five people age 25 and older have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared with at least one in three residents of more urban areas like Central Texas and the Metroplex.
Regional universities should take more pride in their areas rather than push to recruit so much from bigger cities and other regions.
- Wendler found values in the communities he visited that weren’t as prevalent in other cities and regions where he’s worked. Over the miles, he experienced what he calls “Panhandle pragmatism” — a sense of grit, determination, and working hard to get things done.