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LA should change radically tech school system

In the debate over higher education provision in Louisiana, here’s a thought: what if the state scrapped its existing technical schools?

Even as Louisiana is overbuilt in its baccalaureate-and-up institutions, it might be even more when considering it has 49 separate campuses to provide technical training. This is in addition to the 87 accredited non-public entities that provide some kind of major occupational training in a physical location at the tertiary level in the state (and 104 total proprietary schools).

Accreditation is important because as long as other sound practices are followed, this allows a school to have its students qualify for federal assistance, loans and/or grants. This money ends up paying for the bulk of operations at the proprietary schools, but much less for state schools. The latter also typically have much lower tuition and fee costs for students.

One could argue that with the lower costs, perhaps as much as only one-quarter of those of the highest-priced proprietary schools for some programs, that it’s necessary for the state to maintain the system so poorer individuals can get that education. It might also justify the state having so many campuses, most outside of large urban areas making them more accessible to students.

But location isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Having so many campuses, some only a dozen or so miles from another or less to proprietary institutions, certainly multiplies costs and does not take advantage of economies of scale. For example, should Houma have three separate campuses, with others down the road in Morgan City, Cut Off, and Galliano? Especially when there’s a proprietary school in Galliano, population (soon to be updated from 2000) of 7,356? And when transportation costs typically don’t pose difficulty for most aspiring students?

Of course, the range of courses at the many campuses could be greater than those at the nearby proprietary schools, but that assumes that the kinds of courses being taught at state schools if they did not exist would not be taught at proprietary schools. In fact, if the state schools disappeared overnight, probably proprietary schools would move in immediately and start teaching many of the same curricula offered by the state schools. Chances are that the state with its subsidies undercuts the private sector to the point that the latter can’t compete for some programs and with a level playing field proprietary schools would enter those areas.

They would do so because of demand and that they could make money off that with the federal subsidies to students. Further, state schools appear unable to handle the increased demand generated by their relatively low costs to applicants, with waiting lists typically of a year for popular programs; what good is lower cost when you can’t access the program when needed? Proprietary schools appear to respond quickly to the demand, with far less bureaucracy to navigate and quick cost recapture through higher tuition and fees.

While true that students would have to pay more without the presence of state (more precisely, taxpayer)-backed programs, they would get higher grant totals and lending could make up the difference in many cases in pursuit of learning through the proprietary schools. Still, for many students it would mean higher loan amounts to pay off, yet this presents minor, if any, problems to access for individuals because the nature of this kind of training differs dramatically from the classic notion of higher education.

This kind of training occurs with a specific job and skill set in mind, one presumably in demand at the moment precisely because of student interest and also from requests from employers. Thus, the vast majority of students who decide to go with a proprietary educator and its higher costs do so as they perceive a very good chance of employment (and often at salaries higher, perhaps much higher, than for graduates from a number of areas taught in baccalaureate institutions) at a level that allows them to pay off loans and the like.

Contrast this with many fields taught in the baccalaureate institutions, using as an example my area. Political science is a good, potentially challenging curriculum through which in a general way teaches one to think critically and express the products of such thinking using the study of how humans manage social conflict in the area of power relations among varying interests. But it does not prepare you for a defined career path or occupation that you enter immediately after graduation. As such, the incentives for students to major in it are much fewer and without state subsidies, where students become much more responsible for paying for their education, likely few would major in it because it does not prepare them directly for a job that promises sufficient resources to pay for these costs.

Nevertheless, that and many areas in the university are taught because society sees a benefit in the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge in that area, with potential spillover effects that aid society in other ways (for example, as I tell my American Government students for whom that course will be their only in the area, that the importance of this knowledge lies in their abilities to use to defend themselves against the inevitable abuses wreaked by government allowed by an ignorant governed).  Therefore, it merits subsidization, and the point being that when training occupationally instead of scholastically, the same imperative for subsidization does not exist.

Thus, we can argue that the state should not be in the business of providing the kinds of vocational education that comprises its technical school system. Evidence is that the private sector can provide it in a way, and probably more efficiently, that would relieve taxpayers at the state level of the financing burden without affecting the ability for people desiring such education to fail to obtain it in a manner financially realistic for them. This kind of system works elsewhere in modified form: for example, in Germany the state plays only the role of coordinator, landing their (equivalent of America’s) high school graduates apprenticeships with private sector firms where their vocational training occurs.

That understood, the original question stands: should the state scrap its technical school system? To answer that: probably not in its entirety, at least initially. Without question Louisiana remains overbuilt in this area; looking at all levels of post-secondary education, the state ranks 11th in terms of public-to-private school students (with three states above it very rural and small in population), showing an over-reliance on the state to provide higher education in general.

Still, having a few such schools located in the metropolitan areas and in a few smaller municipalities might be good for the interim, with them concentrating in training for occupations that government heavily involves itself such as health care and education, because the extent of government involvement makes it a market mover determining labor needs. The remaining sites can be dispensed with, in all likelihood purchased by the private sector in many cases. After a period of this reduced model, if disruptions in labor force provision do not appear, the state should consider getting out of the business altogether.

The current public policy debate about funding higher education seems bereft of this kind of conversation, and thereby for completeness sake needs to take up this matter.

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