Change Is Inevitable For Louisiana’s Higher Ed System

It’s no secret that Louisiana’s current setup of its public higher education system is problematic. The system, which currently has 14 four-year campuses – a number grossly out of line as a function of the student population it serves by comparison to other states – has been criticized in good times as being too diffuse to promote excellence and is now being assailed as too wasteful to continue in the face of a $1.6 billion budget deficit.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has issued a challenge to the heads of the state’s higher education system to provide better value, citing an abysmal six-year graduation rate of 39 percent among the 14 four-year campuses – with only LSU boasting a grad rate over 50 percent. This despite the fact that 70 percent of Louisiana’s high school graduates head to college within a year of picking up a diploma, a number higher than the national average. And in the meantime, some 25 conservative members of the state House of Representatives, including House Speaker Jim Tucker, sent a letter last week to those administrators demanding a plan to cut costs without diminishing services. And to top things off, a report from the Higher Education Research/Policy Center claims that more than one third of Louisiana’s higher education funds are wasted on non-graduating students.

Polling data indicating that the public doesn’t buy into the idea of raising taxes to support higher education has all but eliminated discussions, outside of those in state Democrat Party circles, of restoring the Stelly plan or business taxes eliminated earlier in Jindal’s term to fund higher education at its current levels. The Governor has said he’ll veto any tax increase in any event; with the GOP in control of the House, any such ideas are dead on arrival. A study concluded last month indicated that Louisiana ranks 9th out of the 50 states in the share of revenue devoted to higher education, and yet the results being generated from that spending aren’t satisfactory by anyone’s estimation.

So the result will be a leaner higher ed system less dependent on state general fund outlays.

Critics of this new direction offer dire predictions of Louisiana’s future being crippled by an underfunded higher ed program. LSU in particular is being held out as an endangered sacrificial lamb to Jindal’s national political ambitions, though it’s not completely clear how the logic behind such an assessment works. When Louisiana had money to spend earlier in his term, Jindal spent on higher education. Now that the state doesn’t have money to spend, he has to make cuts.

But Jindal has indicated he’s looking for structural change. This year he already spearheaded the passage of the Louisiana GRAD Act, a measure which allows public universities in the state greater freedom to price their tuition in return for a commitment to improving those woeful graduation rates. He indicated earlier this week that he might find GRAD Act 2.0 in some of the suggestions put forth by the Louisiana Flagship Coalition, a group of businessmen primarily interested in bolstering LSU’s fortunes amid the budget carnage.

The Flagship Coalition will announce its agenda at the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday, but its basic thrust is that much of LSU’s budget is being wasted by having to comply with bureaucratic mandates. Freeing the university from those, said LFC spokesman and Lamar Advertising CFO Sean Reilly, could save as much as $55 million – $32 million of which could come from the removal of an “antiquated purchasing system” alone. The Coalition’s discussions with Jindal earlier this week also included the idea of imposing a student “flagship fee” aimed at covering funding shortages.

LSU isn’t standing idly by, either. System President John Lombardi has proposed tuition hikes across the board at state colleges and universities ranging from some $460 per year at technical schools to $1500 per year at LSU. Chancellor Michael Martin applauded the discussions between Jindal and the Flagship Coalition, noting that LSU needs to be less dependent on the state’s fickle economy and the roller-coaster nature of the general fund. Martin said he liked seeing that there were leaders willing to “step up and help solve a difficult (budget) problem and not just turn it into a political harangue.”

But it’s not yet known whether the efforts to free LSU up for more autonomy to price its education and conduct its affairs will meet with legislative approval. The 25 House conservatives who issued that letter to the state’s Board of Regents were very clear that they’re looking for a “smaller and more accountable Higher Education system.” There may not be inherent inconsistency between that and greater autonomy for LSU and the state’s other four-year schools, but there will be large-scale resistance to anything which doesn’t involve a major slimming-down of the system. No calls were made in the letter for specific campuses to be shut down, though a strong signal was sent that if the Regents decided to close one or more colleges there would be support if a good case was made. To wit…

Although basic, very imporlant questions must be answered:

  • In comparison to other statcs what size system should we have?
  • What is the realistic system size compared to realistic funding?
  • Do the academic programs at the regional universities meet the regional educational and economic requirements?
  • We know this is an extremely difficult process! Are you up to it? Can a board of volunteers fix this problem?
  • We have had two years of “looking into it” or “we’re looking at it,” now time has run out! SO “where’s IT at”?
  • We want our children to attend college, BUT we must stop admitting the ones we know will not graduate! What is the plan to immediately improve the graduation rates?

Veteran political observer John Maginnis, in a column outlining the battle lines, indicates that one item likely to pass is allowing universities to charge tuition based on credit hours. It’s estimated some $75 million could be generated that way, though current rules which make for students paying the same for full-time tuition whether that would constitute 12 hours or 18 might serve to encourage students to graduate more quickly. Those rules do, however, encourage students to sign up for 18 hours and drop two classes they don’t like or aren’t doing well in, which wastes resources.

But however the debate ultimately proceeds, the current way of doing things is about to die. Whether some increased form of market-based competition among the state’s universities, a more LSU-centered system, a move to push more “marginal” students to technical and community colleges or some campuses left in the dust are in the offing, there’s a growing movement to abandon what is increasingly seen as an unsustainable status quo.



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