APPEL: Louisiana Has To Start Focusing On Quality In Higher Education
The key to prosperity for all of Louisiana’s citizens lies in the growth of family wealth. Nothing short of a systemic change from low income jobs and poverty must be the goal for the state as a whole, and in particular of our elected leaders. The opportunity to grow family wealth is wholly dependent upon the availability of wealth building jobs which result from the in-migration or growth of business. Businesses base decisions on where to move or to grow on a variety of criteria, all of which are based upon the ability to make and retain a profit. This is how the American economic system has worked so well for so long.
Post-secondary education and training are high on the list of such criteria, but also included are a trained workforce, favorable tax policy, high quality of life, a fair civil justice system, good transportation, low cost utilities, proximity to raw materials, and a favorable regulatory environment. Despite the conclusions of reports such as the recently released DEMOS report on college funding, it is inappropriate to believe that any one element of the decision making process outweighs another. It is absurd to suggest that funding of higher education can be unilaterally correlated to the level of crime and poverty. Higher education certainly provides the means for individuals to improve their quality of life, but it is too simplistic and ultimately misleading to assert that a lack of funding for post-secondary is the primary cause of poverty and high incarceration rates.
Measuring the success or failure of our system of higher education by simply comparing annual funding levels fails to take into account the performance of our post-secondary institutions. In Louisiana, we spend a significant portion of discretionary state funds every year on higher education, but we ask and receive little by way of outcomes for our investment. Sadly, our colleges and universities, as measured by retention rates, graduation rates, and alignment with workforce and economic development needs, yield very poor results overall. Duplication of degree programs by multiple institutions mere miles apart is symptomatic of this problem, as is our failure to eliminate programs of study with few students or completers. The fact that we operate far too many institutions per capita in comparison to our competing Southern states dictates that our funds will always be spread very thinly; the result being the reality of underfunding of individual institutions.
It is time that we realize that we can never expect to provide the finest of educational opportunities for our citizens when we continue to pour more and more funds into a system that has been cobbled together for decades with little regard to the quality of the institutions that we are funding. It is time, perhaps past time, to begin making hard decisions about our expectations of performance outcomes for our colleges and universities. Only when we are certain that we have a higher education structure that can efficiently and successfully utilize scarce resources, should we solely focus on how much more funding should be provided.
In order to be able to attract the businesses which can provide the jobs needed to move Louisiana’s economy forward, we must be able to provide a world-class system of higher education that is high performing, properly funded, and aligned with workforce and economic development needs. We are not there yet, and are not likely to ever get there unless we fundamentally change the way we approach post-secondary education at all levels.
In Louisiana, business as usual is bad business!
Sen. Conrad Appel (R-Metairie) is Chairman of the Senate Education Committee.