HIGHER ED COMMISSION PROPOSES CRITICAL REFORMS

by Dan Juneau, President, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry

This past legislative session, Speaker of the House Jim Tucker passed a bill that created a “Postsecondary Education Review Commission” which was charged with studying Louisiana’s higher education system. Called the “Tucker Commission,” the group is also looking at ways to save state dollars by better aligning needs with services, eliminating duplication and maximizing efficiency.

As with all major policy revisions, data should drive change, and the Tucker Commission has received reports that outline disturbing data trends. In Louisiana, only 37 percent of higher education students graduate within six years. Compared to the southern average of over 50 percent, Louisiana falls short. Without higher admission standards to enter our 4-year universities, students are enrolling who are not prepared for the academic rigor required to succeed and either drop out or fail, often leaving the university with little to show for their time and effort. Further, many students leave the university with debt, and remain unskilled and unable to enter the workforce.

Without higher admission standards, Louisiana will continue to have an over-representation of students in 4-year universities, and an under-representation in 2-year community and technical colleges. In our state, 75 percent of higher education students attend 4-year institutions, with 25 percent attending 2-year. The southern average is 56 percent to 44 percent. Economic forecasters predict that most jobs in the future will require more than a high school diploma, but not a 4-year degree. We need to better utilize our community and technical college system to be prepared for this emerging workforce, and to better serve the workers who will sustain it. Combine this common sense recommendation with the fact that, for every 10,000 students enrolled in two, rather than 4-year institutions, the state saves approximately $30 million. The result is a powerful argument to immediately begin implementing higher admission standards based on each university’s role and mission, and aligning campuses to meet regional economic development priorities.

With a looming budget crisis (a $1 billion shortfall in 2011, and almost $2 billion the following year), the Commission is looking beyond raising admission standards to address higher education funding. One idea being discussed is performance-based funding. Should institutions with single-digit graduation rates be funded at the same level as those who come close to the southern and national averages? With the large number of higher education institutions in Louisiana, funding them in a good economy is a challenge; funding them the same way now is impossible. There are 14 4-year institutions, two 2-year, and about 40 community and technical colleges, with some satellite campuses. That’s a lot of facilities to maintain. Hard choices will have to be made.

The business community is strongly promoting these, and other, ideas. Quality education and training is a business issue, and higher education reforms have been promoted by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) for years. The Commission’s final recommendations will be sent to the Board of Regents by February 12, 2010. The Board will consider the recommendations, and the Legislature may also act when they convene next spring.

The recommendations will be controversial, as some will want to protect jobs, turf, and funding with no performance required, but the state’s budget crisis will dictate many definitive reform decisions. Though pushed by the state fisc, these reforms need to occur no matter how flush the state budget has been in the past or will be in the future. Higher education reform is a critical component in building a quality workforce and in our economic development activities, and will lead to a brighter future for Louisiana.

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