St. Charles Herald-Guide

Wise words on how to improve higher education

By Dan Juneau - November 24, 2010

I drank my first cup of coffee this morning while reading the letters to the editor section of my local newspaper. At the top was one written by an economist who got his degrees from our system of higher education in Louisiana. He made some excellent points:

“Admittedly, there is a symbiotic relationship between education and economic development, but the true line of causation is far from clear-cut. If a state cannot provide good employment opportunities for its graduates, the best educational institutions in the nation will not prevent the outmigration of human capital. In these circumstances, doubling or tripling (an institution's) budget would not arrest the trend, so the problem must be more fundamental than mere lack of funds.”

The gentleman addresses a very valid point. Post-secondary education in general in Louisiana, and higher education in particular, are often given the status of near idolatry. The multitude of post-secondary institutions (all 65 of them, not including satellite campuses and professional schools) and five separate management boards are purported to be a primary driver of economic development in the Bayou State.

Would that it were so. Unfortunately, the main economic development impact of post-secondary education in Louisiana is the payrolls within the institutions in the communities where they are located. The multiplicity of institutions and boards weighs down the potential for reaching critical mass in the partnership between post-secondary education and economic development.

Where economic development and post-secondary education have the most advantageous symbiotic relationship is in areas where the landscape isn't overwhelmed by institutions. It is where the entire system of post-secondary institutions has a defined role, with minimal duplication, in a clear mission that attracts businesses to locate and expand in a state.

We are light years away from having that approach in Louisiana.

The budget bloodbath that is now gearing up in Baton Rouge will undoubtedly again miss the point regarding funding, cuts, and missions. The focus will be on saving jobs and institutions. Communities will compete for dwindling dollars in order to preserve the status quo. Boards within post-secondary education will battle each other and other state agencies to keep every job and every institution in place.

If somehow money mysteriously appeared to keep funding intact, what would the end result be? We would continue forward with a mediocre system that adds to the state and local economies primarily by payrolls and vendor contracts, not by energizing the economic development potential of the state and its citizenry.

The first debate that needs to occur in Baton Rouge is the proper role for post-secondary education to play in the creation of wealth through opportunity and entrepreneurship - - not through the mere sprinkling of government funds in our communities. Louisiana spends a higher than average amount of government dollars per capita. It hasn't exactly brought us unbridled prosperity. Transferring more dollars from the private to the public sector is not going to turn our economy around.

The economist whose letter to the editor I read over coffee this morning ended his comments with a salient point:

“In 2008, only 12 states nationwide provided more expenditures per student; in the South, only North Carolina and Georgia ranked higher in student support. It is just that we do a terrible job allocating those expenditures in a way that gives us the biggest bang for our buck.”

Amen sir!

Lost in the coming debate about what percentage of state revenues should go to post-secondary education will be the more important question: When will we streamline and change the system to better enhance quality job creation instead of simply pumping government payrolls into communities and calling it “economic development?”