SADOW: Funding And Tuition Are Not The Problem At Louisiana’s Universities

As the academic year begins for most Louisiana public universities, we get another dose of alarmism: tuition is going up and Louisiana is among the quarter of states not increasing state funding of higher education; indeed, it continues to reduce that. It’s assumed that these ought to be worrisome trends and therefore should be altered by state policy, meaning stop raising rates (or at least as much) and start shoveling more state money at Louisiana higher education.  Wrong.

When a condition is misdiagnosed, you get the incorrect treatment. And beyond increases in tuition and fees over the past few years (for example, tuition and fees at my institution for a state resident taking a 12-hour load have gone up a third from three years ago) and a decline in state support (of four-ninths over the same time period for all Louisiana higher education), it’s another set of data that provide insight into guiding higher education policy in the state in the near future.

The latest data from the Southern Regional Education Board, which tracks particularly the 16 states considered with Louisiana as part of the region, that are fiscal year 2012, confirm the downward trend of state-funded spending, even relative to all other states. Since FY 2009, Louisiana in percentage terms has had the second highest reduction among SREB states and fourth highest among all states.

Yet despite this, Louisiana still ranked eight highest in the SREB in state money spent per capita on higher education, and 18th nationally, even as for baccalaureate institutions it’s the sixth highest in the SREB – and eighth highest in the country – in terms of the proportion of a state’s tax dollars going to fund these institutions. So it’s not a matter of the state neglecting higher education for other things, and that also means, all other things equal, that if taxes were raised to give more to higher education, that proportion would rise even higher relative to other states.

The reason why Louisiana – and southern states generally – seem to plow in a disproportionate amount of state support relative to other needs and in an absolute sense is because they ask for relatively little in tuition. The state ranked third lowest in the SREB and eighth lowest nationally in tuition for baccalaureate study. So, even as tuition in it was spiraling upwards, the same was happening in other states to keep its a relative bargain. Despite this inexpensiveness, the state ranked fourth from bottom in the SREB in progression (staying in school regardless of school location) and second-to-last in completion and nationally in completion ranked fifth from the end.

Still, these have produced the odd situation where Louisiana ranked second-to-last of SREB states in total support per baccalaureate student, among the lowest in both state funds and self-generated (tuition and fees essentially) funds. Further, it has created the situation where in the SREB it is tied for the highest median student/faculty ratio, and tied for fifth through eleventh nationally. Yet in terms of proportion of money going to instruction relative to administration, the state does not compare that compared to its peers, ranking tenth.

These numbers tell us the following:

  • While some continue to lament that state support has dwindled, at the same time relatively it comprises one of the highest proportions of tax dollars (and that would increase if tax increases dedicated to it occurred) spent among the states, meaning even at these lower levels it is at an appropriate amount.
  • Yet Louisiana institutions suffer, because with the relatively high per capita burden put upon its citizens, this indicates there are too many institutions; fewer institutions at the baccalaureate level would mean more dollars for each.
  • This is confirmed by the per student numbers, because too many institutions chasing too few students try to expand the number of students attending, inevitably sucking in students not ready for bachelors’ degree study, which then gets reflected in poorer progression and completion rates – and is compounded by the entitlement nature of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars, which is received by a fifth of all enrollees to Louisiana public colleges.
  • All of this is happening despite the relative inexpensiveness of student costs in tuition and fees – or perhaps because of it, for the more students are asked to invest in their own educations, the more seriously they will take it and the less likely marginal students would be attracted, changes which would raise both progression and completion rates.
  • Compounding money woes is difficulty in translating dollars for instruction into results, for even though Louisiana outranks a few peers in spending proportionally more on instruction than administration, somehow it ends up with the highest median faculty/student ratio.

So it’s not such a bad thing that state support has diminished because it has been above average to begin with. And it’s not such a bad thing that tuition has gone up, because it was so low to begin with. But paying attention only to these things outside of context tempts one to miss the real problem – inefficient delivery of higher education given a structure that until recently was input-oriented, or trying to have as many schools and programs as possible with policy to try to stuff as many students as possible into them, rather than output-oriented that discounts system needs to aggrandize resources in favor of better uses of those resources. Rather than fixating on support and tuition rates, this delivery problem is what policy must address.

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