SADOW: Louisiana’s 49th In Adults With College Degrees, And It’s Not For Lack Of Access

That Louisiana barely maintains second-to-last place among the states in terms of proportion of adult population with a college degrees tells little about resources put into and access to higher education but much about how those resources are deployed and how access can occur in a deleterious way.

With only 27.9 percent having any kind of degree, over 10 points below the national average, several reasons exist why this could be the case. One, that not enough funding is going into the enterprise, can be dismissed quickly. The state ranks 18th in state per capita spending on higher education, yet ranks poorly in outcome measures such as this one, in part because these inputs are being spread too thinly with so many campuses of an overbuilt system.

The other reasons, which deal with how the inputs get used, reveal much more about the nature of the problem and the solution. Until this past year, one of these was the virtually open admissions model that existed at the lowest tier or “regional,” universities. Before then, all a recent high school graduate or General Equivalency Diploma holder needed to do for admittance to at least some of these was to perform around the national average in the American College Test, or have a better than C average in core coursework, or to graduate in the top half of the high school class. Now, both these averages must be achieved as well as 2.0 grade point average overall and some require higher standards still, and universities in higher tiers even have more stringent requirements. And these are due to increase again next academic year.

Combined with tuition rates that, despite significant advances in them over the past few years, still rank as almost lowest in the country, this meant that too many enrollees not prepared and/or qualified to pursue higher education did. Add to that the fact that, until recently, while the baccalaureate-and-above portion was overbuilt, as were the technical schools where nearly half of all parishes had them, community colleges were scarce meaning students who had the preparation to succeed at those instead ended up at four-year schools where they did not, and you can see why so much gets spent with so little in output.

Because it’s never been a problem about access to Louisiana higher education. In fact, the latest data available from the mid-2000’s showed in terms of adult population enrolled in two- or four-year schools in Louisiana, that portion actually was slightly higher than the national average, even as the percentage of college graduates in the state was low. Above average numbers go in, way below average numbers go out.

Also in part explaining this has been the relatively lackluster economic performance of the state from the mid 1980s for about two decades. This lack of jobs disproportionately discouraged people with degrees from staying. Things have improved recently as in even a slower year such as last year Louisiana still managed to be ranked 30th in growth, but it will take many years of not being close to the bottom to make up for the extended stretch that it was.

And even if changed admission standards hope to cause resource allocation to be more efficient, those same standards still carry much potential for inefficiency. All community colleges remain open admissions (that is, only high school diploma or GED needed) and an associate’s degree from any suffices to transfer to any regional school, if transferring with hours taken a 2.0 overall still gets you into the regional schools.

Thus, it is vital that the community colleges offer both rigor and concentrate heavily on the teaching aspect (that is, not sacrifice rigor because it is easier to teach when less is demanded of students) in order to make sure students are ready for upper-division work, remediating and elevating if need be. And it is incumbent on the schools to where they transfer also insist on rigor to make sure a meaningful degree gets awarded. Until recently, accountability policy focused more on the inputs – enrolling as many students as possible – rather than outputs – successful meaningful degree completion. The higher are the latter, the higher is their proportion in the population.

Therefore, the root of the low proportion of state residents without a degree is a consequence of (1) economic trends not creating enough jobs for those with degrees that only has begun changing in the past five years, (2) historically low tuition rates plus low to nonexistent admissions standards only recently improved that shoved those more likely to fail into the system and the track placement problem that created to aggravate that tendency, (3) resources spread too thinly across an overbuilt system that makes the process of educating less effective as a whole, and (4) misplaced commitment that eroded the quality of higher education delivery. Access and money spent did not impact negatively the proportion, so any solutions that address these are mistaken if not ideologically motivated.

Any policy to change the trend instead must focus on increased performance accountability of higher education institutions, a more rational structuring of them beginning with fewer technical school campuses and merged or downgraded baccalaureate institutions, and a continued emphasis of standards that also must coordinate with elementary and secondary education in their improvement as well. Reform to accomplish that improvement in the latter case has continued for the past several years, but recent efforts to extend that to higher education have faltered. Meanwhile, no serious attempt to rationalize that structure has succeeded. Until these happen, expect only incremental and marginal changes in the proportion in question.

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