A Requiem for Louisiana Public Higher Education

I could come up with all kinds of lame reasons why I haven’t posted anything in going on six months, since early in the Never Ending Legislative Session of 2016. As time went by, I justified it by telling myself that the best thing I could do was wait until it was all over and then attempt a postmortem, rather than blogging on the day by day political drama.

But the real reason is that I had been so caught up in the political higher ed drama for so long, and hearing the same things over and over and OVER that a few weeks in I realized I had nothing substantive to add that I hadn’t already said. I lost count of how many times our higher education leaders were dragged back to our legislature to once again explain to our elected officials why public higher ed is important and why it needs funding. I could pretty much recite from memory Joseph Rallo’s, F. King Alexander’s, Dan Reneau’s, Ray Belton’s and Monty Sullivan’s talking points. And not a word mattered at the end. Not a one.

Because the deal was already done.

In a new op-ed, recent LSU grad Justin DiCharia traced his journey from last year’s “idealism” as one of the organizers of student protests against higher education funding cuts to “realism” gained covering this year’s session as a Manship News Service journalist. (I should add that I think these student reporters did an outstanding job this year on par with the rest of our excellent legislative press corps.). DiCharia describes how when given a choice, like our legislators (supposedly) faced, between TOPS and the potential closure of our safety net hospitals or life-saving waivers to families of disabled children, he would now sacrifice TOPS. I could dissect the false dichotomy that has been constructed here (not by DiCharia, but by our legislators and their corporate handlers) but I won’t. It won’t make any difference. We’ve already decided what kind of state we are going to be and it isn’t one that values education, or health, or people.

We can’t have it all because we gave it all away, our revenue, resources, and the future of our state and children, and we aren’t taking it back. And there is no guarantee that next time safety net hospitals, waivers, or anything else that doesn’t contribute to the Bottom Line won’t be on the chopping block or pitted against something else we currently deem Too Important to Cut – For Now.

GRAD Act may be dead, but now we have the Elevate Louisiana plan, courtesy of 2014 legislation sponsored by Sen. Conrad Appel (R-Pick One, Merge or Close). DiCharia may not have realized it, but the legislative compromise he describes in his article is the most bluntly succinct description of the Elevate Louisiana plan and its ultimate aims I’ve read so far:

Combine this [TOPS cuts] with reducing Louisiana’s 15 colleges by closing or merging institutions with six-year graduation rates under a set percentage. Along with reducing the number of institutions, those which make the cut should be directed to consolidate programs across the state and eliminate duplicate specialized areas of study. Academic departments not producing more than, say, 40 majors a year need to go. In this time of continued fiscal crisis, the luxury of low-producing programs is expendable.

These measures would increase higher education funding and, in turn, stop universities from having to increase tuition rates.

The three systems (LSU, UL and Southern), along with the Legislature, would investigate how to cut and consolidate the state higher education system. One of the indicators would be graduation rates.

I’m afraid it won’t be long before we see one or two of our HBCUs close, merge, or privatize–or at the very least, before we see new proposals to do so. They are, after all, near or on the bottom of the graduation rate list according to DiCharia’s article. It bears mentioning that traditional IPEDS graduation rates of freshmen entering college upon high school graduation are increasingly meaningless since they exclude huge swaths of students including transfer, returning and adult students, as well as students who take more than six years to graduate. These are also more likely to be low income students or students of color – which penalizes institutions which serve more of these students. Also, Grambling University is poised to lose another $1M in funding this year. It’s not like other universities like UNO or Southeastern are in any great shape either (they are also losing $1M and $1.4M respectively – and the UL System was hit hard in general), but I have no idea how Grambling can absorb a cut of this magnitude unless their alumni step in financially and otherwise to save the university. Conscious or not, this is egregious fiscal and institutional racism at work in my opinion.

While I very much believe in community colleges and workforce training in principle–I am a product of a community college myself–and that not all students can or should go to four-year universities, the growing workforce rhetoric I’m hearing out of Baton Rouge makes me very afraid that we’ve decided that four-year universities will no longer be a viable option for increasing numbers of our students, not even as transfers, and that we will start seeing even more African-Americans and other students of color pushed toward getting low to medium credit workforce credentials while white and affluent students will go to a shrinking number of universities offering a shrinking number of “high demand” programs that will be “state” in name only.

We may look like we are still alive, or in better shape than Illinois where institutions are closing. But we aren’t, or at least not for long. Some of us have terminal cancer. Some of us have limbs and hearts and brains that are being replaced with bionics. So still technically alive, but not really human. Not really public higher education.

This is the “new reality,” according to both DiCharia and the Board of Regents. The money isn’t going to be there for Louisiana higher education. “It serves no useful purpose for the Board of Regents to wish for better days and a return to appropriation levels of the past,” says the statement approved in the April 2016 board meeting. $700 million is all we have to work with, folks. Deal. It might be branded “Elevate Louisiana!” but it sure sounds like “Acquiesce Louisiana” to me.

I could say that we all lose, but we won’t, or at least not equally. People with money and privilege sure won’t. White people for the most part won’t. People like me – professionals and faculty in our higher education institutions, will continue to leave just as we have been for several years now. Students and their families who have the means or grades or ability will either pay the extra tuition, get extra scholarships, or leave for other states where they’ll get a better deal. I think in the short term students who were going to LSU or UL Lafayette will stay closer to home because of the TOPS cuts, so I’m expecting enrollment increases at UNO this year for example, but in the longer term our neighboring states are going to continue their aggressive and increasingly successful recruitment of Louisiana students, and enrollments will continue to progressively decline. We enroll 10,000 fewer college students now than we did at the beginning of Bobby Jindal’s term, even though high school graduation and TOPS college core completion rates continue to climb.

I’m not sure if this is my last blog post or not. There’s so much more to say, about race, inequality, the role of higher education in both, especially now after the events of the last couple of weeks. Last year I was a bit discouraged that the students who were protesting really didn’t know how to protest. Well, some obviously do now.

I actually have hope for the future, and at my advancing age I am still a proud idealist, but I may not see what I hope for, and I may not be part of it. But at least I can say I raged against the machine a little. A few more students were allowed into college the last couple years than before – so hopefully I’ve been part of the solution more than part of the problem. But I’m afraid that Louisiana public higher education, as we knew it, is pretty much over.

 

 

 

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