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Optimal LA higher education policy still elusive

Readers of the excellent series from The Advocate concerning higher education in Louisiana should draw as the major lesson from it that policy-makers must understand the nature and purpose of higher education before they can appropriately size and task it.

The several articles explode many myths previously uncovered in this space: that higher education has sustained severe cuts in revenues, tuition has climbed relatively too high, and that an overbuilt system increases access, among others. However, it does perpetuates one here and there, such as implying an extreme imbalance of user fees to taxpayer subsidies as in “taxpayers put up barely a quarter of the tab, leaving students and their families to cover most of the gap in the form of rising tuition and fees” to fund higher education; in fact, the fiscal year 2016 budget has self-generated money making up 51.6 percent of total funding, with not all of that tuition and fees and that figure barely above the national average.

More accurately, limiting the amount spent to just institutions with instructional programs, which includes Taylor Opportunity Programs for Students dollars but excludes Office of Student Financial Affairs money as state resources, and also excluding research institutes’ amounts, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office the self-generated revenue figure comes out to 63.2 percent. So if discussing money going to instructional-related activities, bearing in mind “self-generated” includes some portion not related to educational charges (such as the $10 million Louisiana State University kicked in from its insanely profitable football program), a good figure probably is 60 percent, not the near 75 percent policy-makers would have people believe.

But all together the articles demand viewing higher education in a larger perspective, and perhaps none more than concerning the deliberate policy shift, which actually began when former Gov. Bobby Jindal headed up today’s University of Louisiana system and then promoted more fully when he served as governor, of emphasis on community and technical colleges as appropriate institutions to educate the less capable and more vocationally-oriented students, concomitantly making universities focus more on a traditional kind of university education for those who demonstrate the aptitude to succeed in occupations that demand more in the way of expertise and higher reasoning.

That meant increasing enrollment at community and technical colleges while making admissions to universities at least mildly selective and for those to abandon teaching curricula geared to vocations and also remedial classes. Not only would students less capable of higher education success become routed to institutions specifically focused on teaching and instruction geared to make these kinds of students better learners, but also the system could do so less expensively and more successfully, in terms of retention and degree completion by students.

It’s taken awhile, but the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, which assumed governance of all but two of the handful of community colleges then in existence at the end of the 20th century and the myriad dozens of different technical school campuses, has built several community colleges, converted technical schools into those, and consolidated previous technical schools, into 13 institutions now (although at 50 campuses, some more streamlining could induce additional efficiencies without loss of service capability). As a result, where an outsized three-quarters of higher education students used to attend baccalaureate-and-above institutions, now it’s more like five-eighths, although that still remains several percentage points higher than the national average.

Further, the LCTCS has made a concerted effort to match offering to marketplace demands for skills. Coordination with the Louisiana Workforce Commission and an academic structure much more nimble, such as the vast majority of faculty working on short-term contracts responsive to enrollment trends, has paid off in increased ability to educate to particular workforce needs. Even the senior institutions have begun focusing more on building up majors with higher demand.

Yet this shift of higher education has drawn some criticism. Some observers wonder whether it has become driven more by economics than by the concept of higher learning – the idea that the university exists primarily as a vehicle to enable students to think independently and critically using a knowledge base in a particular area of study, as opposed to career training. So, for example, political science taught as a discipline first and foremost does not intend to prepare students for a career path as a political scientist or politician, but to give them foundational skills that they can employ in a number of potential careers or graduate study purposes.

Too much focus on workforce participation, critics argue, shortchanges students on a classical university education by deemphasizing what many term the arts (and to a lesser extent the sciences, as the sciences often serve as specific bases for specific knowledge needed in scientific and technical careers currently emphasized). A related complaint asserts that concerning community colleges their current strategy serves well the one segment of clients interested in technical/vocation careers but disserves the other segment that wants to obtain a baccalaureate degree but whose seekers weren’t ready to begin at a senior institution.

However, if executed properly by institutions, none of this should be problematic. The Board of Regents has a general education requirement that mandates instruction in basics of the arts and sciences, at an elementary level (27 hours) for the associates degrees that can serve as a springboard to transfer to a baccalaureate program, and one more comprehensive for those four-year degrees (39 hours). This means all students, regardless of degree program and whether they will use the specific skills and knowledge in all of these courses at all in their careers, will receive training in these areas – again, assuming that institutions deliver rigorous instruction in those areas.

Thus, if institutions engage in cutting, for example, major programs in the liberal arts in favor of those in business administration, engineering, education, etc., as long as they continue to offer quality basic courses in those areas, attenuation or even disappearance of courses in those disciplines above those should not concern. Any courses retained beyond the foundational for a classic university education should come as mainly as a result of workforce demands and partially out of a desire for the state to offer more specialized, low-demand majors here and there as parts of centers of excellence on various campuses to maintain cores repositories of knowledge and expertise.

Understanding that senior institutions must focus on general education requirements courses first, complementing those with full curricula in areas of educational strength and by career demand, and that junior institutions must focus equally on general education and vocational training, will ensure optimal resource use without duplication or utilization on courses of study unlikely to prepare students for career opportunities and/or personal growth as individuals and scholars. This realization eludes many Louisiana policy-makers both in office and academia, and until learned the state’s inefficient higher education system that asks too much of taxpayers and delivers inefficiently to students will lumber on.

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