Louisiana's community and technical colleges are delivering on promises made nearly 20 years ago when the system was authorized by voters, the president of the system said Monday.
But LCTCS President Monty Sullivan said huge challenges remain, especially coming up with more financial aid for students.
"It has been a paltry effort," Sullivan said. "We have to find a way to talk about how to provide access to people across Louisiana."
Sullivan said the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students, known as TOPS, supplies financial aid for those who earn it through academic merit.
He said he is "very supportive" of that assistance, but "we are leaving folks behind who have some financial need."
Sullivan, who is the fourth president of the system, made his comments to the Press Club of Baton Rouge. About 130,000 students attend community and technical colleges. Voters authorized creation of the system in 1998.
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Sullivan said Louisiana has gotten national recognition for having one of the highest percentages in the nation of adults with short-term credentials. Those credentials can provide training so that, for instance, a 27-year-old mother of two can learn the skills that paves the way for an $18 per hour job instead of one that pays $8 hourly.
Sullivan said that, for the second year in a row, more than 15,000 students transferred from community colleges to universities. That includes about 1,500 transfers into LSU.
"It was not that long ago we had no open door," Sullivan said.
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In the past, he said, there was distrust and friction among higher education leaders.
"Those days are in the past," Sullivan said. "Higher education must, must be unified."
He said community and technical schools are go-to sites when companies spell out worker skills needed for firms to grow, the key aim when the state authorized the system.
"Our community and technical colleges are doing the job we asked them to do back in 1998," he said.
Sullivan said that, of the state's 4.6 million residents, 2.3 million are working age adults, including about 600,000 who lack a high school education.
Another 500,000 or so state residents only have a high school diploma.
Sullivan noted that Louisiana is beset by age-old problems, including poverty, health issues and lack of education.
"They are all solved by a common thread," he said. "Education, education and education."
Federal Pell grants are the key source of assistance for students attending community and technical colleges.
Any push to boost financial aid for students attending community and technical colleges faces huge hurdles amid state budget problems.
Louisiana is rare among Southern states in that aid for the LCTCS comes from two sources: state dollars and tuition revenue.
Community colleges in many states get a third source of revenue through local taxes, including property tax dollars.
The LCTCS system has been cut by $82 million in the past nine years.
"In nine years the faint of heart have left," Sullivan said. "The people who could not stand the heat are gone."