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No fancy plans required to ameliorate workforce needs

Gov. Bobby Jindal has made clear his primary emphasis in the regular session of the Legislature in 2008 is workforce development, identifying the problem needing solving as disconnection between the kinds of skills graduates have coming out of public secondary and tertiary institutions and what the economy demands. But to correct this, we need first to understand the true nature of the problem which many have failed to correctly grasp.

If one is to argue there is too many offerings for bachelors’ degrees and not enough for associates’ degrees or vocational training, to say it is because of the whims of higher education officials largely misses the point. Louisiana’s problem in this regard is not there are too many people getting bachelors’ degrees and beyond – far from it, as the state ranks among the lowest in terms of the proportion of its population with these degrees which are the backbone of any economy that wishes to develop.

Nor is it accurate to maintain that passing control of tuition from the providers who ought to know something of the costs of education delivery, the universities, to largely uninformed politicians would not improve the situation. Louisiana is the only state that is backwards enough to leave tuition decisions in the hands of the Legislature. In fact, it is this very politicization of education that has skewed education needs from workforce needs.

It was politics that gave Louisiana too many four-year institutions in the first place. Note that Illinois, with three times-plus the population of Louisiana, has just about as many four-year institutions (public and private) as does Louisiana, while it has more than four times the number of two-year schools. Simply, schools outside of areas of real need, often in smaller cities or too many in bigger cities, were allowed to exist and grow to grant bachelors’ degrees and graduate degrees, usually at the behest of area legislative delegations looking for prestige.

Unfortunately, the overbuilt nature of senior institutions just isn’t going to go away. Bluntly (and sorry if it hurts the feelings of my colleagues at these institutions, but they know the veracity of this statement), there’s no reason to have such institutions 60 miles from both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, or 70 miles from Shreveport, or historically black institutions within 10 miles of large institutions in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Ruston. But that’s the situation the state must live with.

Thus, if the problem is too few two-year degrees or less offered relative to four-year degrees – which, again, are relatively too few in Louisiana already – the problem rests on the shoulders of the leaders of the four-year schools and their governing bodies only insofar to the extent that they themselves do not offer more in the way of associates’ degrees and certain certificate programs to meet this need.

Practically, this is the quickest and most effective way to use resources to close the education-workforce gap, not name-calling and suggestions that the dysfunctional legislative control of tuition continue. Besides removing legislative control over tuition, there’s no legislative solution needed here, just a willingness by the state’s education leaders to provide this kind of education where appropriate.

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