Since We’re On The Topic Of Reorganizing Higher Education, Please Allow Me To Pitch In…

Kevin Boyd’s been doing great work tackling a subject which is something of a third rail in Louisiana politics; namely, the rather impregnable 14 four-year state universities in Louisiana, with its population of 4.6 million.

And as a quick aside, we should note that 4.6 million is a number which probably reflects a good deal fewer college-capable or even college-needy young people than other states with similar populations. After all, because of Louisiana’s mix of industries it’s a lot easier for someone to secure a job capable of providing a middle-class existence without a college education than in other states. And we all know that owing to the horrendous quality of the state’s public K-12 schools there just aren’t going to be as many high school graduates who can meet the academic demands of a quality college as there would be in other states.

I’ll have a post later this week comparing Louisiana’s public colleges to those in the four states most closely resembling us in population – Alabama and South Carolina, both of whom have 4.8 million people, Kentucky (4.4 million) and Oregon (3.9 million). Some of them are similar in terms of the numbers of public colleges and some of them are not, but the one thing which is true is that Louisiana has a shockingly small number of private universities. There are only seven in the state, and only two of those are outside of New Orleans, while Oregon – with 700,000 fewer residents – has 15.

That’s as convincing a case for the economic theory of “crowding out” as you’ll find. Not only has the glut of public four-year universities in the state crowded out the private schools – consider that there are no Catholic colleges in Louisiana’s deeply-Catholic southwestern or south-central regions, and Louisiana College in Pineville and Centenary College in Shreveport struggle to achieve enrollments over 1,000 – they’re even crowding each other out.

When UL-Monroe, LSU-Shreveport, LSU-Alexandria, Northwestern State, Grambling and Louisiana Tech are all within a two-hour drive of each other, amid a population of maybe 1.5 million people in the northern half of the state, your higher education system is not being driven by the marketplace. If North Louisiana was a state in its own right with 1.5 million people, it would have a population similar to Idaho or Hawaii. Idaho only has five four-year public colleges; Hawaii has four.

So the market is overserved. Everybody knows that, but nobody has the political stones to do anything about it.

Much has been made of Louisiana’s change from a model of higher education funded mostly from the state’s general fund to one funded chiefly from tuition and fees, and the higher education community – led by LSU’s increasingly shrill president F. King Alexander – has been squawking loudly about how poorly it is funded. In addition, we hear constantly that the increases – some 62 percent! which leads the country!- over the past five years are dooming Louisiana’s college students to a live of penury.

Louisiana’s average in-state tuition and fees for the 2014-15 academic year, as measured by the College Board, are $7,314. That places the state 14th cheapest out of 50. The U.S. average is $9,139 – substantially higher even after the “unsustainable” increases of the rapacious Jindal administration.

Except that $7,314 figure doesn’t count the fact that many – about one-third – of Louisiana’s in-state college students collect TOPS scholarships, which cover tuition costs and, in the case of TOPS Performance and TOPS Honors scholarships, other costs as well. Meaning that state dollars are flowing to Louisiana’s four-year colleges at fairly similar rates to what they’ve historically done; just on a different model. If you like, you can consider TOPS to be a “voucher program” for the state’s public universities, in which funding flows from enrollment rather than political clout.

The administrators hate that, because it essentially turns them into businesspeople who must respond to the needs of the market. And given the needs of Louisiana’s market, which mostly involve a shortage of skilled industrial workers and most certainly not college grads with degrees in Art History or Mass Communications or Psychology, reality has a way of slapping F. King Alexander in the face rather rudely.

Particularly given that Louisiana’s community college graduates tend to bring in higher salaries within the first 18 months of joining the workforce after finishing school than its four-year grads do. Such is the benefit of learning a marketable skill.

Again, though, there is no political courage necessary to chop that 14 down to the nine Kevin argued for this morning, or even to 13. You can’t target a bunch of schools en masse for extinction or some other form of alteration, because if you do you create a bloc of state legislators who will band together to save the schools in and around their pooled districts. Go after Grambling, SUNO, LSU-Alexandria, Nicholls State and LSU-Shreveport, and you’ll have every legislator from the north central, northwest, central, south central and New Orleans areas getting together to kill your plan.

And if you were to pick them off one by one it might be a bit more doable, but even the idea of merging SUNO – the most painfully obvious target on the list owing to its pathetic 11 percent six-year graduation rate and its tiny enrollment – with UNO was proven close to impossible a few years ago when it was tried.

So you will not get a diminution of that 14 through political means. There has been a discussion, which frankly needs a great deal of support and perhaps a pushing-through to completion, of the idea of taking UNO out of the state’s university system and setting it free as a locally-funded and locally-controlled university. Kevin talked about that idea in his piece this morning, and his formulation isn’t bad, but frankly I wouldn’t even put UNO under the Board of Regents. I’d have UNO out of the state system altogether. You’d still be able to get TOPS to pay your tuition at UNO, but I’d have a local commission made up of representatives from Orleans and the other parishes in the area govern the place and I’d have those parishes come up with a funding source that replaces what UNO gets from the state general fund. That way, UNO can be what people in New Orleans want it to be, which has never, apparently, been what people in the rest of the state want because UNO has inexplicably struggled to get any traction of note as a university since it was originated as a rump New Orleans campus of LSU.

LSU-Shreveport probably ought to go that route as well, unless the idea of merging it with Louisiana Tech and having Tech move to Shreveport and build up along the Red River in the southeastern part of Caddo Parish were to take hold. Frankly, Tech will never be more than it is if it continues in Ruston; Ruston is too small and too middle-of-nowhere to grow Louisiana Tech into a math and science powerhouse university like it wants to be. Tech does well for what it is currently; Tech and LSU are the public universities in the state which can be said to be the most successful, but it isn’t Cal Tech or MIT or even Georgia Tech or Texas Tech right now. It needs to be in a city of enough size to generate the kind of spin-off business community that attracts students and endowment, and you won’t get that in a tiny little burg like Ruston.

The UNO and LSUS/Tech ideas could possibly be done through politics if a consensus among the local folks can be had. But privatizing universities like Grambling or McNeese State or Nicholls State, or shutting down a school like SUNO, just isn’t going to happen through the Louisiana legislature no matter how awful the budget situation might be.

Instead, you have to let the market kill the weak performers, which is exactly what the F. King Alexanders of the world will scream loudest about.

Using state general fund dollars to back public colleges insulates those colleges against poor market performance. When a Grambling or SUNO, or Southern for that matter, finds itself on the wrong side of market forces and can no longer attract quality students in sufficient numbers to survive, the general fund – which is most properly termed as “political money” – represents salvation. If you can get enough politicians on your side you can get the political money to offset the loss of self-generated funds a bad school will suffer.

So here’s my solution, that I have offered before and nobody seems to give it the time of day but the worse things get with no solution in sight eventually you people will come around to it. Use TOPS to fund the state’s colleges, and TOPS alone. If you want to create a higher education venture capital fund which will back things like building construction and various endowments like professorships, etc., that’s fine, so long as it’s an ironclad rule that all money coming out of that fund can only be spent once and never to sustain something it’s already paid for. That way an experiment like CAMD or Pennington at LSU which doesn’t actually generate the return it promises in terms of private investment doesn’t become a long-standing boondoggle and a siphon of the state’s education dollars.

Otherwise, it’s TOPS and TOPS alone. Take the TOPS awards and create three separate levels. TOPS already has an Honors, Performance and Opportunity scholarship available with various levels of award associated with each, but they’re tied to GPA and ACT score and they aren’t competitive, which is to say that if you score X on the ACT and have Y grade point average in high school, you have access to a TOPS scholarship regardless of what the rest of the kids your age around the state do. That ought to change; TOPS Honors scholarships should go to the top five percent of applicants, whether from high school, college, the military or otherwise, and TOPS Performance scholarships should go to the next 10 percent. And the next 15 percent should get TOPS Opportunity scholarships.

If you’re not in the top 30 percent of applicants for TOPS, you’re paying your own way through school and what you really ought to do is go the community college route. Statistically you’re not going to graduate in six years from a four-year school, so it’s better not to spend too much money on tuition and fees and you really ought to focus on learning a marketable skill rather than reading Beaudelaire or Chinua Achebe in some liberal arts class at LSU-A. And if you should go to a community college and apply yourself, and perhaps post a great GPA, you ought to be able to re-apply to TOPS and perhaps be scored in the top 30 percent.

For those who do fall in the top 30 percent, the awards should be generous. Say $5,000 for a TOPS Opportunity scholarship, $10,000 for a TOPS Performance scholarship and $15,000 for TOPS Honors.

To carry that much cash with them makes TOPS students extremely marketable; they become the new arbiters of state funding for Louisiana’s universities.

And the second step is to set all 14 of the universities free. Do away with all the systems and boards, other than perhaps the Board of Regents which would have the power basically to collect information and to formally appoint the leadership of the universities. Otherwise, allow them to compete in an open marketplace for those college students.

Do that, and you will lose some of those 14. It won’t be anybody’s fault in the legislature when they go; it will be the market killing them and nobody else. But the story won’t just be who got killed, it will be who flourished. After all, the people at UL-Lafayette have said forever that if they were just able to get out from the yoke of LSU and secure proper funding they could emerge as a true rival and a more successful university. OK, fine – let’s see if that’s true. Under this system ULL would have an equal opportunity to compete with LSU for the state’s best students, and if they can steal away a significant number of them they’d have the funding to create a great university for the 21st century. Meanwhile, LSU would see its funding greatly increase under this plan, because its tuition could rise from among the lowest in the SEC to among the highest without negatively impacting the in-state students, and most importantly LSU would never need to go begging to the state legislature for funding ever again.

The losers? Obviously, the schools on the bottom end. Politically, for example, nobody wants to do anything about SUNO, but when SUNO has no source of public funds if they’re not able to attract any students carrying TOPS money with them SUNO will either stop being such a disgrace to public education in Louisiana or go away very quickly. Ditto for many of the other schools across the state which struggle for compelling market narratives or performance-based justifications. Most of them are already seeing enrollment declines; that’s a signal the market doesn’t hold them in much favor. Only politics can save them.

Well, here’s to getting the politics out of Louisiana’s higher education system and letting the market in. Ultimately it’s the only way to improve the service this state gets from its public colleges, and as it happens given the current state of the budget it’s the only way the colleges can get the funding from the state that they need.



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