Last week, state lawmakers arrived in Baton Rouge for the opening day of the annual legislative session in a somber mood. "Budget crunch" does not begin to describe the fiscal pain they must spread across virtually all areas of government. Higher education and health care, as usual, will be among the hardest hit. Instead of general, across-the-board belt tightening, lawmakers this year face the real prospect of closing or merging whole institutions. "There's nothing like a fiscal crisis to bring about reform," one budget hawk noted after Gov. Bobby Jindal's opening-day address. Indeed, Louisiana's fiscal crisis represents both a challenge and an opportunity. As difficult as it is, lawmakers must address that crisis with an eye toward long-term reform. Let's start with higher education.
The governor outlined in general terms his proposed "Louisiana GRAD (Granting Resources and Autonomy for Diplomas) Act. The act would give state colleges and universities greater authority, through the Board of Regents, to raise college tuitions up to 10 percent a year — if they establish higher admissions standards, improve graduation and retention rates, and meet other performance standards. Details are spelled out in House Bill 1171 by House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers. While many additional details must be worked out by the regents with individual colleges and universities, we support the aims of the bill. It is designed to improve public higher education across Louisiana by raising standards and offering incentives. In the end, all modern institutions face the same dilemma: Improve or perish.
In addition to fiscal necessity, there are many objective reasons to support the GRAD Act. According to the Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL, www.cabl.org), graduation rates at Louisiana's public colleges lag behind those in other southern states. Louisiana's most recent six-year graduation rate is 37 percent — compared to 53 percent in other southern states, CABL says. That statistic tells only part of the story, however. The best Louisiana institution has a 66 percent graduation rate, while the worst has a pitiful 6 percent rate. The GRAD Act would allow the regents to impose higher (but achievable) graduation rates at individual institutions in exchange for greater autonomy.
Closely related to graduation rates, CABL notes in a recent report that Louisiana has an "imbalance of enrollment" between two-year and four-year colleges compared to other southern states. In Louisiana, 72 percent of post-secondary students attend four-year institutions, compared to 55 percent elsewhere in the South. At the same time, 28 percent of Louisiana's post-secondary students attend two-year schools, compared to 45 percent in other southern states. This explains several things: why Louisiana has so many (read: too many) four-year colleges compared to other states; why Louisiana spends far more than most states (in the South and nationally) on higher education, with relatively little to show for its investment; and why graduation rates are so low in Louisiana compared to other states.
"It costs both the state and students more money to enroll in four-year schools," says CABL. That's an understatement.
When those statistics are examined against the backdrop of Louisiana's $1.2 billion (and growing) budget contraction, it's clear something must change — and soon. CABL has recommended, and the GRAD Act seeks to implement, a number of higher education reforms that will turn the current crisis into an opportunity for significant improvement in higher education. They include allowing the regents and institutions to raise tuition without legislative approval; raising admission standards and/or capping enrollment at four-year institutions; reducing duplication by merging campuses or administrations; placing all two-year institutions in the state's community and technical college system; reducing the number of doctoral and graduate programs so universities can concentrate on undergraduate programs; moving remedial and associate degree programs to community and technical colleges; raising academic standards for the popular TOPS scholarship program; cutting budgets in a strategic and targeted fashion, rather than across the board; and other reforms.
Louisiana ranks near the top in general state support of higher education, yet among the lowest in tuitions at its public universities. The current fiscal crisis will force the state to spend less on colleges. The GRAD Act would allow the schools to offset cuts by raising tuition — and raising their standards. We think that's a fair trade, and one that will, despite some short-term pain, improve higher education in the long run.