Guest column by Barry Erwin says aim for bigger goal for budget to fix higher education shortfalls _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Barry Erwin, president of Council for a Better Louisiana, speaks at Monday's lunch meeting of the Baton Rouge Press Club. Erwin discussed tax reform, a topic for the Legislature for the first time in a number of years. CABL has been monitoring and analyzing proposals from the governor and legislators, as well as other state think-tank groups. Photo shot on Monday March 4, 2013, in Baton Rouge, La.

The Advocate’s recent special report on higher education in Louisiana has shined a bright light on the importance of postsecondary education in our state and how its potential to make Louisiana better has been diminished by years of budget cuts and tuition increases.

Implicit in the coverage are some facts that are pivotal to the discussion about the future of our colleges and universities: Louisiana’s education attainment rate is among the lowest in the country, our need for higher levels of education is great and we have to do a better job of educating all of our citizens.

Consider some of the facts:

More than 1.7 million working-age adults in Louisiana have no postsecondary degree. That represents more than 70 percent of the working age population at a time when every study tells us that education requirements are rising.

The percentage of African-American citizens with a degree is barely half that of whites, which indicates a large gap for a significant segment of our population.

Despite the recent drop in oil prices, the long-term need for workers will continue to grow and projections indicate that about half of the good-paying jobs in Louisiana by 2018 will require some form of postsecondary credential.

Clearly, this doesn’t add up to a good formula for the future prosperity of our state. What we need is an intervention.

Every bit of data shows us that educational attainment is the key predicting factor with regard to many of the issues we face as a state. Health, crime rates, poverty, public assistance, personal income, increased tax revenue for the state — all are functions of educational attainment.

We need to raise the education level of our state and we need to employ a number of strategies. We must begin to reinvest in our colleges and universities, of course. But we must also remove as many obstacles as we can to getting a postsecondary credential. We must create a better connection between our K-12 education system and higher education. We must give the millions of working-age adults in our state without a degree or credential an easier pathway back to the classroom.

And we must be inclusive of all of our citizens. We can’t let any part of our population be left behind because they’re poor, they’re not the traditional student, or they come from circumstances where education wasn’t valued. There are a million moral reasons to do this, but there are just as many practical ones.

The problem is that if we are even to begin to succeed in any of this, we need a dramatic commitment to a long-term strategy to accelerate improvements in educational attainment. That means a serious rethinking of the role of higher education. Not just what does higher education need from the state, but what does the state need out of higher education and how will it deliver that.

In the past, it might have been enough to say our colleges just need to try to educate everyone who walks in their door. Now it needs to be they must work to make sure they complete, are qualified to join the workforce, and that the graduates they are producing help meet the state’s workforce needs.

And, oh yes, they need to find ways to recruit not only top high school students but some of those 1.7 million adults without a postsecondary degree who need to raise their educational or skill levels to survive in a competitive economy.

Yes, we’re facing a financial meltdown, and yes, it’s hard to think about anything but money right now. But if we are really going to fix the budget mess, we should do it with a big goal in mind. A commitment to improving educational attainment and, thus, transforming the economic opportunities of the people of our state is a big one. But it’s the right place to start.

Barry Erwin is president of the Council for a Better Louisiana.