College Enrollment In Louisiana Is Declining. Why?

An interesting report from the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) dropped into our inbox this morning…

College Enrollment Drops in Louisiana and Nationwide

Undergraduate enrollment at Louisiana public colleges fell 2.6% for fall 2021, according to the Board of Regents. The Louisiana State University and Southern University systems both increased nearly 2% in undergraduate enrollment. But the University of Louisiana System had a 5.7% decrease, and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System had a 2% drop.

The trend is not unique to Louisiana.

Nationwide, undergraduate enrollment decreased 3.1% from 2020 to 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The number of eligible students accepting the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students Award (TOPS) decreased by 7.7% in the 2020-21 fiscal year — a larger decline than previous years. While all systems experienced a decline in TOPS recipients, the vast majority occurred in the University of Louisiana System.

The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance didn’t request more TOPS money for the 2022-23 fiscal year because of the declining enrollment trends.

Louisiana state officials say the COVID-19 pandemic, disruption caused by hurricanes and other factors caused the enrollment drops. National news outlets suggest the economy’s wellbeing, low birth rates and cost of college are among the factors impacting schools nationally.

In case you’re not aware what campuses are in which system, the LSU System consists of LSU’s main Baton Rouge campus; LSU-Shreveport; LSU Health New Orleans; LSU-Alexandria; Pennington Biomedical Research Center; LSU Health Shreveport; LSU-Eunice; LSU Ag Center & Research Stations; and LSU Health Care Services.

Meanwhile, the Southern University System consists of Southern University in Baton Rouge; Southern University-Shreveport; Southern University Agricultural Research and Extension Center; Southern University Law Center; and Southern University-New Orleans.

And the University of Louisiana System consists of Grambling State University, Louisiana Tech University, McNeese State University, Nicholls State University, Northwestern State University, Southeastern Louisiana University, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, University of Louisiana at Monroe, and the University of New Orleans. As an aside, this is why outside of Lafayette there are so many people who bristle at ULL’s demand to be called the University of Louisiana or UL – the UL system has no flagship and it’s a bit of bootstrapping to assume that title by calling yourself a flagship when it hasn’t been given by the legislature.

Anyway, the enrollment is tanking. PAR had a chart showing it…

What’s going on here? Well, you’d say that this is a function of outmigration, that Louisiana kids ready for college are heading elsewhere at their parents’ urging. That’s happening, but the numbers show it isn’t really the driver of this. Because college enrollment is tanking in Louisiana but it’s even worse elsewhere in the country. Louisiana’s college enrollment took a 2.6 percent dump while it was a 3.1 percent drop nationally.

PAR didn’t get into a demographic breakdown of the Louisiana enrollment decline, but our guess is it’s going to reflect some of the same trends you see nationally. Namely, that the falloff in college enrollment is occurring mostly among men, and specifically white working class men.

There’s a reason why, too, which is that the skilled trades have been experiencing a major shortage of workers for several years as the Baby Boom generation begins to retire. Skilled tradesmen throughout the last decade had average ages in the high 50’s and low 60’s, meaning many were close to retirement.

Generation X largely stayed away from the skilled trades. We were brought up to believe we had to graduate college and become lawyers, investment bankers, insurance salesmen, stockbrokers and accountants and that was the key to the good life; becoming a plumber or an electrician or a carpenter was work for immigrants and kids who could barely get out of high school.

This was an asinine lie, of course. The 45-year-old plumber who owns his own small business is as likely as not to be pulling down a six-figure income as the ham-and-egg lawyer hanging around the courthouse looking for clients he can grab (and in an overlawyered state like Louisiana, that’s a very significant segment of the bar). But it’s what our parents and the guidance counselors at school told us, so off to college we went.

But this generation, who are the children of Generation X, see things a lot differently.

The three richest business people they grew up hearing about, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, didn’t graduate from college. Google doesn’t hire college graduates to write code; they get kids out of high school. The skilled trades pay more than ever before and they’re desperate for people.

Meanwhile, college tuition – less a problem in Louisiana than elsewhere thanks to TOPS, but the dynamic still applies – is higher than ever, and the prospect of crushing debt stares these kids in the face. Two decades of weak economic growth, especially starting with the Great Recession of 2008, has made these kids’ parents not all that financially stable, so paying for college isn’t as easy as it was for kids going off to college in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Money is a problem, so the four-year college experience begins to look not so much like an answer compared to just getting a job and starting a career.

For males, you understand. Women generally go into professions where a college degree is a requirement.

And then there’s the college experience itself, which has changed. Colleges are now woke temples where gay and trans advocacy is ascendant, where critical race theory is blared out everywhere, where masculinity is decried as toxic and where anti-American and anti-capitalist ideologies are de rigueur. For white working class males especially, it’s a very unattractive environment. And for the marginal students out there it’s just not worth it to become a debt slave to have a piece of paper saying how smart they are.

Nobody in an academic setting seems to understand this. LSU’s president William Tate is running around talking about a “Sputnik moment” in which it’s suddenly crystal clear what a necessity it is that the university get funded lavishly to do these great things that will help to diversify Louisiana’s economy. Everybody should recognize this is really just a strategy to trail in the $100 million he wants to grift out of the state legislature, but the point is how out of touch this all is.

They’re not even hanging on to their current students because the perception that it’s worth anybody’s time is weakening, and the solution to that is to take on projects which depart from the core mission of educating students even more.

As an example, does anybody think that LSU is the most efficient recipient of millions of dollars for research into how to grow more crops? It might seem like if you incentivized actual farmers to grow more crops you’d see better results.

The point of all this is the higher education bubble is leaking. Everybody can see it. And yet the call isn’t to figure out what comes next after that bubble bursts altogether – it’s to reinflate the bubble.

Hopefully Louisiana’s “Republican” legislature doesn’t fall for this scam. We’ll see. What we already know is these guys have long been suckers for funding woke institutions in the vain hope that real products might flow forth, and they haven’t learned their lesson yet. But hope does spring eternal, and maybe the fact that all this money spent on higher education only to see a declining number of students will wake some of our politicians up to reality.

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