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Alter LA higher education policy before taxing

A recent plea for more Louisiana higher education funding reminds of the story of different individuals describing an elephant.

In that tale, individuals unable to see stood around an elephant. Asked to describe the beast just from touch various parts of it, obviously they came up with wildly different conjectures.

So it was when Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed addressed the media earlier this week. She noted that Louisiana families here pay 21.1 percent of their income when enrolled in the two-year schools compared to 17 percent in other southern states and 18.2 percent nationally, according to data compiled by the Southern Regional Education Board. She later added that the state should increase need-based aid to make sure more people have access, observing that it spends $161 on average for need-based aid compared to an average of $343 in the region and $376 nationally, and $1,601 for merit-based assistance compared to an average of $416 in the region and $168 in the U. S.

These figures she obtained from a report late last year by the SREB (using 2016 data) which computed these and other financing figures for each of its 16 member states. In isolation, these data suggest that the state must boost its funding of higher education – which has seen over the past decade a swing from being one of the most heavily-subsidized among the states to about average across both junior and senior institutions – and/or reduce merit-based aid in favor of the need-based variety, given affordability enjoyed by the typical family, at least for community colleges and technical schools.

Yet other data points reveal Louisiana actually has relatively affordable tuition and fees. For lower-income families, while the proportion of income needed in academic year 2011 to attend the lowest-priced public institutions tripled to 18 percent (as did tuition and fees), that about replicates both the SREB and national averages. And while required borrowing for a two-year degree rose to about a quarter higher than the regional and national averages, for four-year degrees the amount loaned for schools with the plurality of students in Louisiana fell lower than those averages (but higher for smaller schools with combined almost as many other students).

However, where increased student financial effort came, it fell disproportionately on lower-income households. Even so, in terms of state spending by personal income, to adjust for different costs of living, Louisiana still funds at a higher rate than the national average (using 2014 data), so that figure would go higher still if the state committed more taxpayer dollars to the cause.

Keep in mind as well of the blurred distinction between “merit” and “need” dollars. With Taylor Opportunity Program for Students qualifying standards so low, for many TOPS money acts almost like need-based aid, at least for lower-income families. Consider as well that relatively few students take advantage of the TOPS Technical award, only about one in six who are eligible, that if more did could raise overall affordability numbers.

Thus, the conclusion Reed draws is hasty. Given that TOPS acts almost as an entitlement that substitutes somewhat for need-based aid, tightening its standards while shifting leftover funding either as direct appropriations or to the need-based GO Grants program likely would make higher education study more affordable. Increased utilization of Tech awards would do the same, which because they have even lower standards simulate even more closely need-based assistance.

Finally, the overbuilt condition of Louisiana higher education continues. Using 2010 data (which unlikely has changed much) of number of senior and junior institutions per capita, among the states Louisiana has the 12th most universities and fifth most community and technical colleges. Closing some technical schools and demoting a handful of universities to community college status would permit plowing back the saved money into higher education.

Before spending more on (and raising taxes to fund) higher education, policy must guarantee what currently gets spent happens in the most efficient manner.

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