Educational attainment levels drive nearly every social indicator we struggle with in Louisiana from poverty, to crime, to health care and self-sufficiency. And the higher the education attainment levels, the better the outcomes.
Certainly, our failings in elementary and secondary education contribute heavily to this. Those with high school degrees or less are the ones that struggle at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder. But it is post-secondary education that adds the real value and counters those outcomes. It is a critical, but too often overlooked, part of our economy.
Over the last couple of years, thanks largely to budget cuts, there has been more focus on higher education in Louisiana than anytime in recent years. The attention is good, but unfortunately the debate hasn’t always been about the value of post-secondary education and what we need and expect for it to deliver to our state and its citizens.
Be that as it may, some good things have happened because of the discussion. Attention was paid to the resources that are needed to run quality institutions and there was a focus on improving performance, making the journey through post-secondary education more seamless, and changing the business model to create efficiencies and save money.
From those discussions, positive policy changes were made:
· Institutions now have limited authority to raise tuition if they meet certain performance goals.
· They have added flexibility to operate more efficiently outside some of the usual obstacles placed on other state agencies.
· Hundreds of duplicative programs have been reviewed and eliminated by the Board of Regents.
· A funding formula with a performance component has been put in place and simplified.
· And schools are reaching agreements to make it easier for students to transfer the credit hours they’ve earned from one institution to another.
In addition, admission standards at our universities will begin going up in 2012 and that will have another significant impact on post-secondary education. For one thing it will likely accelerate the shift in balance that’s already occurring between enrollment in our two-year schools and universities.
For years, Louisiana’s enrollment in four-year institutions has been disproportionately high compared to other states, but that has been changing as access to our community colleges has increased. While that may have a short-term impact on enrollment in four-year schools, history has shown that students who want to attend a university rise to the standards and the colleges work harder to help them.
All of these are positive moves that have the potential to have lasting impacts on all of post-secondary education. So in this election year, with budgets still tight and higher education still in some degree of transition, where do we stand and what’s next?
Here are some ideas. First, the policy changes that have been put in place regarding tuition adjustments, operational autonomies and improved performance should stay in place and be allowed to work. It takes some time for these policies to show the results that are expected and we should resist the urge to go back and change them until they’ve had a chance to be successful. Certainly they should be monitored and institutions should be held accountable for results, but we shouldn’t revisit them year after year just because we can.
But that doesn’t mean other changes in higher education aren’t warranted. This year the Legislature created two major study commissions whose work and recommendations when they come out should be closely considered. One is focused on the governance and structure of higher education, but is also charged with looking at such issues as budget, tuition and student success. The other looks at ways to improve remediation and what we can do to better prepare our high school graduates to enter post-secondary education and be successful. All of these discussions are important.
On governance, it is critical that this issue is resolved soon. Over the last couple of years, proposals to create a single board to do the functions of the five boards that now oversee higher education have been debated, but never approved. It’s an itch the Legislature continually wants to scratch and it is likely to come up again next year. But it has become a distraction in the higher education debate and it needs to be resolved one way or the other soon.
Politically, it seems difficult to see how a single board proposal will muster the two-thirds legislative vote needed for passage in the foreseeable future. But that’s not to say some of the concerns from proponents about the lack of accountability in higher education created by our current system aren’t without merit. The lines of authority in higher education are certainly muddled.
But just because the conversation on this issue is politically charged, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it. We should and it should be a serious well thought out discussion and the matter should be settled. In the process, we should look for other solutions to the problem of accountability beyond just a single board. One such answer might be simply strengthening and clarifying the current authority of the Board of Regents so there is no question about what board is ultimately accountable.
Other issues bear further and serious discussion, too. Besides the effort to improve the leaky pipeline that exists between high school and post-secondary education, we should also ask questions in several other areas.
- Should the Legislature control tuition policy, or should it be a function of the post-secondary education system like it is in virtually every other state?
- Given that Louisiana is a poor state, what should be the proper balance between state support for higher education and fees paid by students? Because of budget cuts state support has been declining while student support has gone up.
- As that happens, are we maintaining access to post-secondary education for Louisiana families, or should we consider increases in student financial aid?
- What about TOPS? As tuition goes up, so do the costs for the state to fund it. Since we are raising admission standards in our universities beginning next year, should we consider raising standards for TOPS?
All of these represent some of the thorny issues that are affecting higher education, and the candidates we elect this year will have to wrestle with. They’re difficult, but they’re real. They’re also some of the things that should have received more scrutiny a few years ago when the budget cuts began.
The good news is that these commissions offer the opportunity to give these matters and others a thorough and thoughtful review and then pass on some meaningful recommendations to the Legislature and the governor.
Higher education is critically important to our state. We need it to do the best job possible for our students and we need to do all we can to move more and more of both our young people and adults into some level of post-secondary education. The future of our economy, our workforce, and so much else depends on that happening. That should be the message in higher education this election year and that’s what we hope to hear the candidates say.
View Related Data from the Louisiana Fact Book
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View Related Data for the Education Report Card
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LA Board of Regents– www.regents.state.la.us
Southern Regional Education Board – www.sreb.org
National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education - www.highereducation.org
The Chronical of Higher Education - www.chronicle.com
National Center for Higher Education Management Systems - www.nchems.org