Recently, The Advocate lamented the fact that taxpayer spending on Louisiana higher education was being stabilized, not increased. But that mistakes sky-is-falling rhetoric for wise public policy.
If funded around last year’s level, that would put the state compared to its peers (plus the District of Columbia) all the way down to 28th in per capita taxpayer spending on higher education. Which is appropriate, being that the state’s per capita income is ranked 29th. Yet, all we hear about is how particularly the baccalaureate-and-above institutions need more public dollars.
There are three interrelated reasons for the troubled fiscal condition of state higher education, none having to do with taxpayer effort. One, the system is overbuilt with too many institutions chasing too few students, diluting resources and weakening all of them. Louisiana ranks eighth in most institutions per capita and 47th in enrollments per public institution.
Second, it does not operate efficiently. For example, similarly sized Oregon’s senior institutions get along with less than 10 percent of their revenues coming from the state, while the “doomsday” scenario decried by Louisiana higher education at the legislative session’s beginning still contained more than twice that proportion.
Third, tuition significantly is underpriced, with the state’s average ranking for four-year schools only 38th (for two-year, it’s 28th) — not including the effect of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars that pays for roughly a fifth of full-time students’ fare, of whom over a third will lose eligibility at some point. Further, the average debt load of a Louisiana higher education student at graduation is the lowest in the Southern region. Given Louisiana’s relatively higher per capita income, there’s clearly greater ability to pay coming from those who benefit by far the most from the service provided by senior institutions.
If higher education in Louisiana needs more money, it needs to have students at four-year universities pay their fair share for their educations and then also become more efficient at delivering its product, both within institutions and by creating a proper balance of senior and junior institutions in addressing its overbuilt nature. Again to use Oregon as an example (whose per capita income is 32nd but whose average two-year tuition is ranked ninth and four-year 25th), while over 60 percent of its students attend community colleges, in Louisiana about that proportion attend universities. Merging, demoting and closing institutions all are appropriate strategies.
Before picking the pockets of taxpayers further, Louisiana higher education and elected policymakers need to address fiscal problems of their own making through restructuring, a commitment to greater efficiency and in making beneficiaries of their services pay an appropriate amount for that instead of overreliance on taxpayer subsidies.
associate professor of political science