More options in higher education will become available to Fort Bend County residents as Houston Community College prepares for southwest expansion plans and the University of Houston System moves in to transform UH–Sugar Land into a full-scale branch campus.

After several years of discussion, the UH System has implemented four work groups that will determine a two-five year transition plan to make UH the sole provider of undergraduate and graduate programs at the Sugar Land campus.

"The transition of the UHSL campus to an exclusive branch of UH is reflective of an ongoing planning process of continuous evaluation as to how the UH System can best serve the educational needs of its communities," said Richard Phillips, vice chancellor with the UH System.

The UHSL campus is a teaching center of the UH System and does not have the authority to confer its own degrees. Following the transition period, however, the location will be its own university within the UH System.

In addition to the UHSL transition, HCC is moving forward with a $425 million bond package approved by voters in 2012. The community college is planning for several system-wide developments, including significant enhancements and new programs at its southwest campuses in Stafford and Missouri City.

"After passing our bond, we received quite a bit [of money] for Fort Bend," HCC-Southwest President Fena Garza said. "We are building two new workforce buildings. Now we will have an opportunity to build some facilities that will meet directly the needs of our workforce."

Campus expansions

In addition to removing remote programs offered by the UH–Victoria, Clear Lake and Downtown campuses, the system plans to add and expand about 20 programs and relocate a large segment of its College of Technology to Sugar Land.

These expansions are expected to bring new higher education services to residents, said Sugar Land Mayor James Thompson.

"The UH System Board of Regents' recent action to make the University of Houston the sole UH System institution delivering programs at the UH Sugar Land campus is welcome news for Fort Bend County, Sugar Land, and most importantly, the students who will soon have local access to UH Tier One programs," Thompson said. "We believe this investment will serve the long-term educational needs of our community and region."

Meanwhile, the Houston Community College System is investing nearly $50 million at its southwest colleges with an advanced technology center in Stafford and the construction of a new business entrepreneurship center and health care profession, or CETH, facility at its Missouri City campus.

"The majority of the students in the programs [at the Texas Medical Center]—everything from nursing to radiology to surgical techs—are from Fort Bend County," Garza said. "Now that we are going to have those [services] closer to home, I think that [the Missouri City] campus is going to thrive."

The $21.5 million CETH facility in Missouri City is expected to break ground this fall.

Design of the $27 million center in Stafford is underway and construction will begin in 2016.

Transition goals

UH System chancellor Renu Khator appointed four work groups in May to ensure an informative process is in place to best serve the interests of students, the communities and the UH System, Phillips said.

"After a period of transition, gaining a degree at the UH campus in Sugar Land will be indistinguishable from earning a degree from the main campus," said Jeff Wiley, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council.

The work groups appointed by Khator are charged with specific aspects of the transition process. The UH System work group is expected to ensure that UHV, Clear Lake and Downtown students and faculty operating in Sugar Land are able to continue with their current programming. The UH–Victoria work group is working to identify plans to make Victoria a destination campus, while the UH Main work group is helping bring UHV's nursing program into the main campus' newly organized UH Health Science Center.

"These recommendations are pretty bold," UH System Regent Roger Welder said, who is a native of Victoria. "I agree that these guiding principles are imperative. I know there is some trepidation, naturally, among people currently operating there. It's my expectation and [the board's] expectation that implementation of this plan be done in a very thoughtful and careful way."

Meanwhile, the UHSL work group is working to create a plan to make the Sugar Land campus a full UH branch.

Destination campuses

As a result of several approved recommendations from a Sugar Land task force appointed by the UH System Board of Regents in 2013, UHV will have to remove its program offerings from the campus and transfer its nursing program to the UH–main campus' Health Science Center.

As part of the transition, the UH System will provide the money needed for UHV to become a destination university for the Victoria community. Remote courses offered by UH–Clear Lake and Downtown will be removed as part of the transition plan as well. Wharton County Junior College will continue to offer early college courses in Sugar Land.

"The goal is to support [the universities] efforts to become destinations, and to develop an organizational arrangement that best serves the UH System's extended communities," Phillips said.

A draft of the transition plan is expected to be ready to present to the public later this fall at two meetings in Sugar Land and Victoria, officials said.