APPEL: On Higher Education, And How To Structure And Fund It

Just to be clear, Louisiana seriously under-funds its system of post-secondary education. Now with that said, under the political realities that we are faced with there is no reasonable probability, short of a major geopolitical upheaval, that funding levels will increase to anywhere near where they should be in any foreseeable future.

That is a cold statement but in my world I see a number of issues that are lined up to create the perfect storm against major increases in funding. As everyone knows, under our constitution higher education is funded out of our general fund. There is no realistic expectation in the foreseeable future that our general fund will grow substantially. There is no expectation of a jump in natural resource prices, there is no expectation of a jump in employment or business growth that would lead to new taxes, and there is no expectation of the legislative passage of major tax increases in a time of economic weakness. Finally there is no expectation that we will change our Constitution. In short there is no expectation that there will be funds available to grow the budgets of higher education.

Beyond the realities of the constitutional structure of our state, the Legislature, reflecting the thinking of the citizens, has a general desire to see higher education prosper, but at the same time maintains a strong suspicion that simply increasing spending will have no effect on outcomes.

With but a few exceptions, in light of the economic reality in which it finds itself, higher education has never exhibited strategic thinking. Sure the higher education systems react by evermore cuts to their institutions, especially cuts in the education delivery areas versus cuts to the bureaucracy, but a management structure of separately competing boards prevents collective strategic thinking and strong action. Perhaps the best phrase to describe the responses of higher education governance to the stresses of under-funding is reactive self- preservation, certainly not creative thinking.

Now in the real world the reaction to long term downturn in revenue would be to restructure the organization so that it remains profitable in the circumstances in which it is forced to operate. In the political world the opposite is true; dig in and hold on to whatever can be held on to and expect that something will change to make everything go back to where it once was. The problem with such a response is that it is self-destructive and leads to an inevitable collapse of the whole system.

That is the place in which we find ourselves.

If I am correct and revenues will not pick up in any foreseeable future, then we must face reality. That reality means that we cannot keep doing business as usual and hoping for some kind of windfall to save the status quo.

My solutions, solutions that I have been promoting since I joined the Legislature, unfortunately are long-term in nature. I have no short term solutions simply because the only solution is to live within ones means.

I believe that our first step must be to break down the silos that are created by having five boards of higher education. The way to do that is to forgo provincial thinking and create one super Board that can think and act boldly and strategically.

Next, like Georgia has recently done, we must face the reality that we cannot afford multiple institutions that are not strategically planned, either in location or in academic need.

I believe that we must concentrate much of our resources on having one strong flagship, though perhaps without all of the peripheral baggage that ours currently carries.

Finally I believe that, like Florida, we must realize that there are massive economies of scale that we must take advantage of. Florida’s strategy for higher education is based upon fewer, but much larger, four-year schools than we have. Our strategy has been to create more schools placed in more areas than would be the case in a Florida model.

Clearly these and others are strategic decisions that only a single Board could undertake, but it would be a strategy that in the end would allow us to focus on the one true goal of our system of higher education; creating a better life for our citizens through a truly great education!

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