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When pressed, LA higher education can restructure

Maybe Louisiana’s Board of Regents should act more like one of the panels over which it has authority to show that the state’s higher education establishment has gotten the message.

Just days after the Regents released a mandated report that treated its legislative intent as little more than a joke, one of its subordinate management boards did something showing at least some seriousness on that account. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System announced plans that it would consolidate campuses by Jul. 1, realigning eight that would save about $10 million annually.

Monty Sullivan, the system president responsible to the board, recommended the move in facing the reality of higher education funding in the state. Over the past decade spending on community colleges actually has risen slightly, from around $311 million to $325 million, although these now serve about 13 percent more students in terms of credit hours. However, the mix of state funding and self-generated revenues has reversed so now most funding comes from tuition and fees.

That’s an example of the kind of action many legislators have advocated in this policy area. In the legislation that created the special report, lawmakers specified in great detail what metrics should appear. These would provide solid quantitative bases on which to judge the effectiveness and efficiency of delivery. Further, the law exhorted the Regents to come up with ideas about restructuring the higher education system, including merging, closing, and reclassifying instructional levels of campuses.

Instead, the final product ignored provision of much of the requested specific data and shrugged off the task of campus realignment, hiding behind the legal authority that vests the final disposition of such changes in the Legislature. It produced a number of alterations at the margin and nothing more, contradicting statements of higher education leaders who pledged when the project commenced to propose “bold” changes.

This dodging of responsibility should displease legislators, a number of whom have indicated that the state should not increase its share of funding until higher education has streamlined, specifically maintaining that too many institutions chase too few students, especially when it comes to senior institutions. At the same time, some legislators have stumped for funneling more taxpayer dollars to higher education, disregarding any attempt to restructure. Undoubtedly some want to keep the same number of institutions and missions as proof they can deliver resources and jobs to special interests that support them.

Fortunately, Sullivan and the LCTCS board did what the Regents refused to do, at least for that system, and went beyond by executing. By not only coming up with a plan but also implementing it, taxpayers will benefit as a result. In the larger context, this action validates what legislative critics have said about Louisiana higher education’s overbuilt nature – and the system of junior institutions over its short life has operated much more leanly than the senior institutions, giving credence to the idea that substantial savings could come from reorganization of these.

No doubt that unless these legislators had stayed the course and continued to insist both verbally and fiscally upon prompting better resource use out of higher education, this move by the LCTCS would not have happened on its own volition. They and this board deserve accolades for saving the people money, and hopefully this attitude will spread to the more resistant quarters among higher education policy-makers both in and out of elected office.

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