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Case remains to merge, demote LA universities

President of the University of Louisiana System Jim Henderson recently made some remarks regarding the role of higher education in the state which deserve comment and challenge.

Meeting with the Baton Rouge Advocate’s editorial board, Henderson answered questions over his first year on the job. In particular, two topics brought up merit amplification.

During the interview, he shilled for a plan devised by the system that, among others things, pledged to increase the number of graduates. It hopes to increase by 20 percent this figure by 2025, a number which comes from two inputs: the amount of individuals eligible for university education and the skill at which institutions utilize to confer degrees upon them.

The former lies somewhat beyond what the UL System or any institution can do, as that depends upon how well high schools can prepare students – which has not worked well, with the state tied for third-lowest in proportion of 18 to 24 year-olds enrolled in higher education (2014 data). But the latter lies within the abilities of higher education, and so it partly bears responsibility for the uninspiring rate at which Louisiana turns out baccalaureate degrees, just (2015 data) 0.48 percent of the population, or only 40th of the states plus District of Columbia. An increase of a fifth across all systems would mean that statewide rate would rise to 0.57 percent, right in the middle of states and DC.

And he saw the bloated nature of Louisiana’s baccalaureate-and-above public universities as an asset to get there. He insisted that too many universities chasing too few students, rather than a negative, would help achieve the goal of greater number of degrees conferred.

But taxpayers would benefit from a more efficient path to this achievement, which would happen if the state pared a few universities. Numbers bear this out.

Per capita (2015 data), Louisiana ranks 13th in the number of universities, and among the dozen states with fewer people per university, all have significantly smaller populations with only Oklahoma not having less than five-eighths Louisiana’s population. Moreover, even as the state’s higher education decries the amount of money it has available to spend, it ranks (including community colleges and technical schools) 34th highest per capita (2014 data). That figure comes about partly because, in per capita terms (2014 data), it ranks 32nd in state appropriations, although registering a few spots lower when adding in local appropriations as Louisiana local governments contribute nothing to higher education, and the same in average tuition paid (2014 data).

To summarize, in terms of resources per capita or enrollee collected for higher education as a whole, Louisiana comes in below the typical state, outside of the bottom third, although when offsetting these number by the relative cost of living the numbers put it closer to the median. Thus, lack of money does not really explain lackluster performance; the stretching of dollars across too many campuses that creates less bang for the buck does. Consolidate baccalaureate education across fewer schools (by combining some universities and demoting others to community college status) and that would use money more efficiently.

Henderson claims this institution multiplicity proves worthwhile because “each has areas of excellence, each has areas of focus.” But that condition certainly does not preclude consolidation and, depending upon the program and where, perhaps not even demotion.

Understandably, Henderson wishes to maintain as many universities as he can under the system’s control, for that means more money, power, and prestige. But better performance for the same or fewer dollars takes precedence, which consolidation and demotion have a better chance of achieving. Regardless of his comments, the case remains strong that both should happen.

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