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LA higher education must address inconvenient data

It seems like a day doesn’t go by when Louisiana higher education officials aren’t decrying the impending budget cuts that will have to be endured. As unfortunate as the results of these might be, the problem is the constant refrain that neglects certain aspects threatens the credibility of higher education in a state where its reputation already is subdued among the general population.

Of course, it helps your cause when you don’t associate yourself around idiocy and failure to do so occurred recently when the leaders of the three public Baton Rouge institutions allowed East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden to speak on their behalf. “All three institutions in Baton Rouge are facing layoffs, which weakens consumer confidence and consumer spending and ultimately impacts our sales taxes,” he wailed, which has a degree of truth. But he left out the rest of the story: if restoring funding means removing that money from the private sector, that probably would end up costing more job reductions and lowering of consumer confidence and sales tax revenues. And his idea is logically absurd: according to Holden’s view, why not drain every cent from the private sector to support these schools if that’s what it takes to preserve jobs, etc.

At least the college heads seemed more rational in their statements, adding to the chorus over the past three months about potential adverse impacts concerning the disproportionate cuts, largely dictated by the inflexible state fiscal structure in a deteriorating economy. However, the continued poor-mouthing by higher education threatens to backfire so long as certain inconvenient facts are not discussed, information that, if left unexplained by the higher education community, weakens the argument against significant cuts.

Using data mainly from 2004-05 (but number of institutions from 2006), a couple of aspects need to be addressed in the debate over the cuts. First, Louisiana, which ranks (by 2008 estimates) 23rd in total population and among the prime college-age group of 18-24 years old 22nd, at 58 has the sixth-most number of public community colleges (which includes technical schools) and at 17 eighth-most number of public baccalaureate and above institutions of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia (which has no community colleges).

This ends up being reflected in the enrollments per public institution. Among the states, Louisiana ranks 47th, ahead of only three significantly smaller-populated states, in terms of enrollment per school at the two-year level, and 31st for the four-year-and-up schools. Simply, there are too many institutions of higher learning in the state – and population increase projections are marginal at best. Contrary to what is often stated, while there does appear to be some minor problem with too many four-year schools, the much bigger problem is with the number of two-year schools unless you can argue that too many students who should be at two-year schools have ended up at four-year schools.

All right, we can’t wave a magic wand and change this overnight, so what about the short-term situation of budget cuts? After all, the argument often used by higher education is higher education has been underfunded historically so cuts now would reverse any progress and retard it for the future. Well, there’s another troubling statistic addressing this: in terms of state operating appropriations per enrolled public student, Louisiana ranked 10th among the states (and it should be noted dollars into higher education increased disproportionately higher after 2006 in the state, and this does not count any monies paid by the state for the Taylor Opportunity Program Scholarships which may hit $130 million this year). To restate that, 40 states and D.C. were paying less per student into their higher education systems, not including capital outlay, than was Louisiana in 2004-05.

And while it’s often asserted that more money has to go into Louisiana’s system because of low tuition rates, that’s not entirely accurate. Among the states, Louisiana ranked 32nd in terms of tuition paid per public school enrollee (although for some it is TOPS money).

In this debate about higher education cuts, taxpayers have a legitimate question that appears to go unanswered by that sector: if the per capita appropriations are so relatively high and tuition not that low, why are the cuts so catastrophic? If other states can get along (and, it is argued, mostly do a better job) at lower levels of expenditures, why can’t Louisiana?

It’s a question higher education must answer in this debate or face the risk of not appearing credible in its protestations about cuts. And as part of it, care needs to be taken not to lump all 75 institutions together. Some of their per student state revenues are going to be much more in line with national averages, and others need to be compared against appropriate peers (such as doctoral-granting institutions, because their per student appropriations will be higher given the more intensive nature of their graduate programs).

A study bill is about to make its way through then Senate and then to the governor’s desk that’s going to ask these kinds of questions about overbuilding and efficiency in the next year. Higher education better have answers ready or the political and public backlash against it, it being perceived as out-of-touch and feeling entitled and privileged, will make the current budget cuts seem mild compared to what’s coming.


Kyle said...

Isn't the solution here to muster some political will and close down some schools? Why should we inadequately fund a slew of mediocre schools when we could really fund much fewer and make them first rate institutions?

Realistically though, we aren't ever going to close down a campus without a huge political mess in Baton Rouge. Jindal doesn't have the stomach for that, so instead he's attempting to starve all of the schools with big cuts. This seems silly to me.

If we are going to have the schools, then fund them adequately. Seven quality schools are better than twenty mediocre ones. If we want to promote efficiency, shut some schools down.

Anonymous said...

What do you get paid and how many students are in your class? Is it a online class or do you teach face to face?

Anonymous said...

Just linked to this column through another. 58 community colleges? Not even close, even with the parenthetical "including technical schools." If we are going to compare data, let's use accurate data. The LTC was completely overhauled three years ago, saving over $4 million in administration leading to a 50+% growth in enrollment. With its eight regional technical colleges, and the state's growing 9 community colleges, the 2-year system is something we should be proud to support.