More students than ever are either graduating from Louisiana's community and technical colleges or transferring from the two-year programs to traditional universities, marking an important achievement for the college system and a positive sign for the state's workforce.
The Louisiana Community and Technical College System released data Tuesday that says 28,853 students graduated from one of its programs in the 2015-2016 school year. That's up 26 percent over last year, and 46 percent more than graduates from 2014.
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However, LCTCS's definition of a graduate includes any student who got a degree or received an industry or professional credential. Some of the credential courses take less than a year to receive.
Eighty percent of their graduates received degrees or certifications in "high-demand, high-income fields," as defined by the Louisiana Workforce Commission, in areas including industrial production, allied health, construction crafts, computer science, manufacturing and accounting.
"We've had difficult times financially, but we've made the hard decisions to cut programs that aren't as high in demand," said LCTCS President Monty Sullivan. "It means these graduates are going to earn a good living."
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In recent years, LCTCS has cut over 500 programs across its 13 campuses, scaling back "soft" degree programs like cosmetology, carpentry and barbering.
LCTCS has taken to using its own data, eschewing traditional performance metrics released by the state and federal government. Sullivan has argued that the graduation and transfer rates released by the state hold two-year schools to unrealistic standards of four-year universities.
For example, traditional graduation rates only include associate degrees, while Sullivan is counting both industry certifications and associate degrees. Graduation rates also traditionally only include first-time, full-time students — a common definition for university freshmen, but a rarity in community colleges, many of whose students are working while studying.
Under these definitions, the LCTCS had a 14 percent graduation rate in 2013, the most recent data available, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents. The nationwide average for two-year schools is about 30 percent.
Sullivan acknowledged that LCTCS data probably won't be used by the state and federal counts. But, he said it's an accurate statement about how many people are being trained to meet Louisiana's workforce needs.
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The system has set a goal of 40,000 graduates per year by the year 2020, and Sullivan says he has no doubt they'll get there.
"A record number of people graduating from community and technical colleges means there are more people with skills and educational backgrounds to go out and provide for their families," he said.
LCTCS also announced that it had 15,805 students who transferred from one of its schools to a university, which included 1,708 to LSU, 1,843 who transferred to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and 2,170 students who transferred to Southeastern Louisiana University.
The system says that transfers have increased exponentially since 2014 when it counted 2,149. But, Sullivan said their definition of transfer also has been broadened over those years, which means it's not an apples to apples comparison.
Louisiana as a whole has lower transfer rates than many other states, as it's less commonplace for a student in this state who wants a four-year degree to start at a local community college. In states like Texas and Florida, where there's tremendous demand to get into the universities, many local students commonly start at a two-year program before making the switch.
Sullivan said they're trying to change that mentality in Louisiana.
"It's very important for people across Louisiana to understand that a bachelor's degree is within their reach and the place they should begin is a community and technical college," he said. "It's the best bridge to a baccalaureate degree."
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Sullivan said they've improved transfer rates by growing general education programs at schools that used to focus primarily on technical training. He said universities have also become valuable partners. He noted that Northwestern University has increased outreach to community colleges, all over the state, encouraging transfers.
Earlier this year, LSU also partnered with LCTCS offering scholarships to students who complete their associate's degree and graduate with honors.