With my compliments to Charles Dickens, it is the best of times and the worst of times for public higher education in Louisiana.
Nationally, the rate of employment correlates directly to the years of education an individual attains beyond high school. Similarly, median individual earnings increase on a smooth, upward curve with additional years of higher education. Even though Louisiana’s economy has cooled a little, a credential in one of many high-wage, high-demand jobs creates immediate employment opportunity, especially for adults returning to the workforce. The tangible benefits of higher education also are mirrored by the intangibles — lower health care costs, higher community involvement, reduced levels of poverty and, notably, an increased contribution to our state’s economic vitality by paying taxes. The mission of public higher education is to create the environment for individual success and community enrichment.
At the same time, the past eight years have been less than kind to public higher education in Louisiana. From 2008-2016, state funding for our institutions has dropped from about $1.6 billion to $890 million. Institutions have been forced to dramatically raise tuition to compensate for loss of state funds. The result is that a student now pays about 75 percent of the cost of attendance, up from 25 percent in 2008. Most telling, and in spite of these tuition increases, public higher education has lost nearly $353 million in net support, the most of any state agency. Sadly, it is the individual student who has been most harmed by this disinvestment by the state in public higher education.
With nearly 30 years of service in the U.S. Navy and the Air Force, I learned many lessons. Several of these lessons have value in the realm of public higher education, most notably the military statement of purpose: “Do the mission and take care of your people.” Current and projected state funding for Louisiana public higher education jeopardizes both the mission and harms our people. As we move into yet another year of budget uncertainty, hopefully the “public” purpose in public higher education can return to the forefront of our deliberations.
Joseph C. Rallo
Louisiana commissioner of higher education