SADOW: We Need Higher Ed Reform Before Putting Any More Tax Money Into It

Understanding the policy debate concerning higher education funding in Louisiana means realizing that it leaders say one thing when in reality they fear it, in an attempt to deflect attention from larger truths about their environment that they wish to keep out of the spotlight.

At a recent forum that brought together various systems chiefs, campus heads, and the top dog himself, Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo, generally they stumped for what they termed “autonomy,” which they defined as marginal changes to practices and procedures in delivering higher education, such as in pursuing capital projects without so much bureaucracy to hurdle. These kind of changes will do little to stabilize funding and increase efficiency in higher education for a state ranked 18th in per capita spending on higher education now facing cuts of anywhere from $100 million to $600 million this upcoming fiscal year, depending upon legislative vagaries in the next few months.

But when queried about substantive changes in Louisiana’s higher education systems featuring genuine autonomy that would induce efficiency, these mandarins blanched. In particular, University of Louisiana System Pres. Sandra Woodley was dismissive about the notion of increased “privatization” (in the sense higher education mostly would control revenue-raising capability, have few constraints on spending decision-making, and its possessing a large degree of separation from state control), alleging through this that “only the relatively wealthy will be able to participate” in earning a college degree. She also called mythical that closing or merging campuses would put higher education funding on firmer ground, because it would cost more to educate different “universes” of students.

To show just how ignorant and nonsensical her remarks were, let’s compare two states on demographics, higher education, and flagship universities, one of which is Louisiana (all data from 2013 except for budgeted senior institution totals which are 2014 and proportion of populations with baccalaureate degrees and above which are 2012). Can you guess which one?

State A – population: 4.6 million; per capita income: $40,057 (ranked 30th among the states); percent of students not of minority ethnicity in four-year schools: 60.5 percent; total money budgeted for senior institutions: $2.754 billion; flagship school annual tuition per hour for 12 semester hours: $729.83.

State B – population: 3.9 million; per capita income: $39,166 (ranked 32nd among the states); percent of students not of minority ethnicity in four-year schools: 64.9 percent; total money budgeted for senior institutions: $2.465 billion; flagship school annual tuition per hour for 12 semester hours: $661.20.

Regular readers of this space probably have figured out the answer from these data and even know what the other state is. For those who haven’t, here are some more clues:

State A – percentage of non-white population: 40.4 percent; percentage of adults with baccalaureate degrees or above: 23 percent; number of baccalaureate-and-above universities: 14; graduation rate from these after six years: 44.7 percent; taxpayer funding for senior institutions: $1.16 billion.

State B – percentage of non-white population: 22.5 percent; percentage of adults with baccalaureate degrees or above: 31 percent; number of baccalaureate and above universities: 8; graduation rate from these after six years: 55.5 percent; taxpayer funding for senior institutions: $269 million.

(data from here, here, here, here, here, here, and links in here)

After these, perhaps only Woodley would not know that State A is Louisiana. State B is Oregon, which on its way essentially privatizing all its four-year schools by the middle of this year with the three largest already operating almost as totally autonomous state agencies. If Woodley doesn’t know that the privatized Oregon system, in a state with a poorer population which obviously hasn’t been priced out of college, can produce better results with far less reliance on taxpayers with only eight institutions and a student population not much different racially from Louisiana’s, then she’s derelict in understanding this issue.

The reason why she and other Louisiana higher education leaders would be fearful, if not disparage, a leaner, more efficient higher education system that relies more on its own revenue generation is this would reduce their power and create unwanted pressure on them. The closing, merging, or demotion of four-year schools would place fewer dollars and people under their commands. In Oregon, by the middle of this year every such institution will have its own separate board that hires a chief executive officer who will have to manage more like an executive than a bureaucrat while the state department in charge of workforce development oversees the 17 community colleges; contrast that to Louisiana’s having a wasteful chain of command that begins with Rallo, who oversees Woodley and three other systems presidents, and then the dozens of senior and junior colleges beneath them, with a separate Louisiana Workforce Commission.

But perhaps more discouraging of them is that the faculty members and staff made redundant by this restructuring would be up in arms and, worse of all, even more exercised would become a couple of dozen state legislators, whose chests puff out in pride at the presence of one or more state universities in or near their districts and whose vocal chords resonate, especially in election years, about how they have maintained all of the jobs associated with them. The only thing more terrifying to Louisiana’s higher education administrators than competing in the educational marketplace with little state backstop is having to face a horde of tenured and classified state employees who believe they should have their jobs for life if they want and politicians who think right-sizing Louisiana higher education threatens their reelections.

So, understand that this talk of “autonomy” doesn’t come close to fixing what ails the state’s higher education delivery system, at least not when defined in the timid and self-serving way that it was at this panel. It’s not more taxpayer money that will solve for this, as Louisiana State University System President F. King Alexander implied when he remarked at the event that the state was in the bottom five both in expenditures per student and in degrees awarded, when already the state ranks above average in per capita population expenses. Instead, the answer comes in restructuring to spend more efficiently and to rely more on own resources; the reason why Louisiana spends relatively little per student is not because of the state’s share, but because the average tuition for four-year schools in the state is fourth-lowest among the states – and raising tuition demands increased leadership capacity to deliver a better product, a possibility that seems to scare these people.

Chronic budgetary problems will haunt Louisiana higher education until it pares its number of campuses (and governing boards), raises average tuition levels, and makes internal changes to deliver a better product. Throwing up hands and saying restructuring measures and organization cultural change won’t help but more taxpayer money will does not solve the long-term problem; that’s not only obscurant smoke-and-mirrors, but it’s also patently false.

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