With only three weeks left in this important 2015 Legislative Session, tensions are high and the threat to higher education is still very real. On Thursday, House Bill 1 is scheduled to be heard by the full House of Representatives, and it holds the key to higher education’s success … or failure. Our legislators have so far shown incredible fortitude by not only proposing real solutions to close the $608 million potential budget reduction to our public colleges and universities but also by guiding these solutions through the legislative process. This required difficult decisions to be made, and we thank the Legislature for prioritizing higher education thus far.
However, we still face many hurdles before the session ends, and we need our leaders to continue being courageous in the battle toward budget stability for LSU and higher education as a whole. This session presents the opportunity to make important choices that will determine the kind of state Louisiana will be for many years to come and the kind of state we want to leave for our children.
Public higher education has never been more of a necessity than it is today. In a state where we rank 49th in college completion but are fourth-highest in the rate of children living in poverty and actually lead the world in incarceration rates, access to affordable higher education is critical for our young people and for the future of Louisiana. We must invest in education, which we already know is the pathway to eradicating these perpetual conditions. It is a doorway to the middle class and beyond, to a more stable life, to opportunities for real change and impact. A college degree can do that for everyone, but only if it is available to everyone.
Right now, the difference in lifetime earnings between an individual with a college degree and an individual without one is $1 million over a lifetime. A college education also means better health, career choices, job satisfaction and many other benefits.
But higher education isn’t just about the individual. It provides consistent investment return to society. Studies have shown that those with college degrees are more civically engaged in their communities and volunteer more regularly. Our critical mass of scientific and technical expertise has brought industries and jobs to Louisiana. We produce teachers who educate your children, physicians who treat your parents and research that enhances your everyday life. We are in every parish of this state, supporting the critical $13 billion agriculture industry and fighting to save our vanishing coast.
Higher education is about jobs, economic development and finding solutions to the problems facing our state. LSU enrolls 44,000 students across Louisiana and has an economic impact of $3.9 billion. We graduate students in record-breaking numbers, injecting the state’s workforce with a boost of nearly 9,000 well-educated young men and women every year. And on top of all that, for every $1 the state invests in us, we provide a return of $5. I think that makes our value to Louisiana and each citizen pretty clear.
But, this is a legislative session about choices, and they come down to this: What is our legacy? Do we choose to incarcerate rather than educate? To build other state’s economies by sending our young people away to seek educational and economic opportunities we won’t provide? Or do we choose to provide a stable funding base for public higher education so that the youth of this state have an accessible and affordable means to improve life for both themselves and every Louisianian?
I believe our legislators have made the right choice, and I hope they will continue to stand by those decisions as they have done to this point. Making the wrong decision will cost the people of Louisiana a great deal more than the dollars in our budget.
F. King Alexander is president and chancellor of LSU.