In Louisiana, we have five boards overseeing our 29 universities and two-year colleges. At the top of the pyramid is the Board of Regents, with four subsidiary boards.
The Southern University system board oversees the historically black schools, except for Grambling, which is under the University of Louisiana system.
There is a separate board for the two-year schools; except for the one in Shreveport, which is part of the Southern system, and the one in Eunice, which answers to the LSU system board.
There are two universities across the street from each other in New Orleans, both struggling with enrollment declines since Hurricane Katrina. But they’re under different boards.
We have two law schools, both in Baton Rouge, even though there is a towering nationwide surplus of lawyers and, consequently, applications are dropping. They’re both aligned with different boards too.
Most of the universities support athletic programs, but almost every time a team takes the field, state taxpayers lose money. Only two programs bring in more than they cost: LSU’s football and baseball teams.
A generation ago, inspired by the rags-to-riches story of oilman Patrick Taylor, we launched an idealistic program that would provide free college tuition to poor students if they got good grades in high school.
But the program, which came to be known as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, now chiefly benefits families that can afford college, and its academic standards have become so diluted that 40 percent of recipients lose their grants because they can’t cut it on campus. As the qualifications have changed, the poor have been mostly left outside the corral.
This isn’t the higher education system Louisiana needs to compete in the 21st century. It isn’t really a system at all. What we have is a product of the politics of the 20th century, largely shaped by segregation.
Much of the discussion about the crisis in higher education has centered on the jaw-dropping budget cuts under Gov. Bobby Jindal and the hefty tuition increases schools imposed to make up the difference. Louisiana universities now rely on tuition and student scholarships for 71 percent of their money, up from 39 percent just eight years ago.
Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to rebalance the financing of higher education so that half of the money is direct aid from the state.
That’s a reasonable standard, in line with a state policy of supporting higher education that reaches back to the days of Huey P. Long.
But there is more work to do.
The new governor seems open to the idea of changes to TOPS that would raise standards and use some of the savings to expand aid to the poor. That would bring Louisiana into line with other states.
How aggressively the governor will tackle inefficiencies and duplication remains to be seen. Louisiana has more universities than Florida, even though the Sunshine State has four times as many people.
The new governor will need to be bold. Those who benefit from the status quo are ferocious, and students and taxpayers have been largely passive about demanding change.
Louisiana won’t thrive in the information century by rebuilding our universities the way they used to be. We have to determine what we need for tomorrow and create that instead.