F, King Alexander 101518

LSU President F. King Alexander told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, that changes in the university's admissions standards has helped shape the most diverse, highest achieving freshman class in school history.

In his early days as governor, John Bel Edwards laid down the law to a gathering of higher education pooh-bahs: He would brook no more bickering, “Not on my watch,” two of the participants in that conversation recalled.

Kumbaya is a heavy lift for academics and that was never more evident than last week. Defending LSU’s unilateral change in admissions standards, President F. King Alexander said higher ed’s overlords had no authority to punish the university for not following the board’s “recommendations.” Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed disagreed, saying the Board of Regents’ 13-year-old “minimum admission standards” were rules that could be enforced.

But before Regents decide whether to fine LSU — as the Southeastern Conference did for fans flooding the football field at the win against Georgia — she agrees with Alexander that the validity of that criteria needs to be discussed.

Current admission standards seem to favor white kids from good high schools and relatively affluent homes free from divorce, illness and tragedy. If accessibility is really the mission of public education, then such rules could limit students of color, those in rural areas, or whose high school years were disrupted by personal tragedy or natural disasters.

“We took a closer look at a lot of kids that deserved a little bit closer look,” Alexander said in defending the new holistic process that minimizes set-in-stone test scores, grade-point averages, and required courses. “We want the Regents to take a much broader look. Who are these students we’re talking about?”

The Regents board last month launched an investigation to see how many of the 14 public four-year colleges are admitting students considered unqualified under current rules.

Not discussed, higher ed leaders say, is the interplay between “holistic admissions” and the finances of institutions that depend on tuition for about two-thirds of their revenues, and a looming drop in college-aged students.

Here's the thing. Birthrates have been declining for some time, particularly among families who can afford to pay for advanced education. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported two months ago that the numbers of births are at new low, have been declining for a decade, and likely will continue to do so.

“Total numbers of students are headed toward a cliff,” wrote Nathan D. Grawe, an economist at Carleton College. His book, “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” published earlier this year, is on the nightstands of nearly every college president and his findings keep them up at night.

He predicts college enrollment will drop about 15 percent between 2025 and 2029. “Unless something unexpected intervenes, the confluence of current demographic changes foretells an unprecedented reduction in postsecondary demand about a decade ahead,” writes Grawe, whose book energized conversations college leaders have been having for the past several years.

Moody’s Investors Service, one of the big three credit rating agencies, expects 15 small, private liberal arts colleges will close each year starting in 2019 and 2020.

Leaders at public colleges, particularly ones not well supported by their legislatures, are trying to expand the pool of clientele. Online education is one idea. Going after out-of-state and foreign students, who pay full freight, is another.

Unlike the Northeast, Midwest and much of the South, Louisiana’s birthrates have remained relatively flat with 63,472 in 2006 and 64,385 in 2016. Still, Louisiana can expect about 7.5 percent fewer college students by the mid-2020s. That’s less than the double-digit dips expected in Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama. However, the bulk of Louisiana births are to families at or near the federal poverty line and have no members who ever attended college.

Alexander says the “right size” for LSU is around 35,000 students, up from about 30,000 now. His chief financial officer, Dan Layzell, told the LSU board of supervisors that the university would need about 37,000 tuition-paying students by 2025 to cover the costs of faculty, research and facilities.

LSU can negotiate its way through the projected drop in prospective students, Alexander said. A demographic blip in the 1980s was avoided when more women started going to college.

Similarly, Alexander said, public higher education should focus on the 40 percent of Louisiana’s high school graduates who don’t seek higher education and on keeping the half who drop out before earning a degree or job training certificate.

That means attracting more students from rural areas and inner cities.

Citing Centenary College in Shreveport as a small, private college that could be endangered by the next decade’s demographic realities, he said that fate shouldn’t befall smaller public schools whose revenues are supplemented by taxpayer dollars. “The advantage McNeese, Nicholls have, is they are affordable and only about 40 percent of their students graduate with debt,” Alexander said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.