Why do so few of our college students complete college?
Should a college education be an entitlement; a free ride for every citizen? Are we steering students toward four-year degrees, when most of the available jobs require only a two-year degree? Why do so few of our college students complete college? These and other questions on this month's Louisiana Public Square which aired LIVE! on LPB and WLAE in New Orleans on Wednesday, June 15 at 7PM.
Among the special guests for this month’s episode were LSU Chancellor Sean O’Keefe, Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. E. Joseph Savoie, University of Louisiana System President Dr. Sally Clausen and Southern University Chancellor Dr. Edward Jackson.
As part of the program hosted by LPB President Beth Courtney, 20 citizens had a chance to question the higher education experts.
To gauge the effectiveness of the deliberative discussion, the participants were polled before and after the show by questions from the LSU Public Policy Research Lab at the Manship School of Mass Communication’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs to see if their opinions about topic have changed after getting their questions answered.
The importance of high-quality public colleges and universities cannot be over-estimated. Communities need teachers, doctors, engineers, financial experts, lawyers, journalists, etc. Our democratic form of government needs well-educated citizens who can make informed judgments about important issues. There seems to be a correlation between a state’s economic vitality and its commitment to education, particularly higher education. According to Public Affairs Research Council [PAR] President Jim Brandt, the single most important thing Louisiana can do to improve its economy is to create a nationally-ranked research university. We are a long way from achieving that goal, which is one of many that need to be attained in order to improve Louisiana’s higher education system.
Louisiana’s enrollment structure is often cited as problematic. The state is behind much of the rest of the nation in the area of community colleges. Proponents of 2-year schools say that they are better suited to address the true needs of the workplace in Louisiana, where it is estimated that a majority of jobs will require only an associate degrees, certification or advanced training, and not a baccalaureate degree. Louisiana student enrollment in 4-year programs – which are more expensive to run - is much higher than the southern average. About 76% of Louisiana’s students are in 4-year institutions, as compared to about 56% for other southern states. Recent and planned increases in admission standards are likely to change the enrollment mix to look more like the rest of the nation, but opponents complain that the higher standards may cause some to give up plans for college altogether. Those in favor of higher standards say they will boost completion rates, and make the college experience a more satisfying and rewarding one for those pursuing either the 2-year or 4-year degree.
For many Louisiana’s students, college is not a positive undertaking. The state has the worst record in the south for college completion. Completion rates are calculated based on whether or not a student graduates from a 4-year program within a 6-year period [the period is 3 years for 2-year programs]. Only about one in three students graduate from Louisiana universities; less than one in ten complete their community college studies. The rates are lower, overall, for African American and other minority students, which presents a looming problem for the state.
Although Louisiana colleges have operated under a civil rights consent decree for over 30 years, some claim segregation continues based on educational achievement. Academically, minority high schools students tend to lag behind their white peers. A study by Achieve, Inc. indicated that nearly twice as many white student as African American students graduated high school “college ready”. This is borne out by similar college graduation rates [42% for whites; 28% for African Americans]. Education experts agree that narrowing the learning gap needs to be a high priority.
College affordability is an on-going concern, especially for people with moderate- and low-income. Over the last 20 years, college costs have increased at about the same rate as high incomes – 6 to 7 percent. However, the increase relative to lower annual incomes has been from 61 to 106 percent, according to the SREB.
Some look upon the pursuit of a post-secondary degree as an entitlement which should not be impeded by one’s financial status. Those opposed to increasing tuition cite the cost of going to college as a barrier to higher education. They also worry about the impact of higher costs on the state’s Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS), which is currently paying out $ 117 million in year in scholarships. About 40,000 students benefit from TOPS, which is merit –not income – based. Increased tuitions would add about $9.5 million to the program, which is already strapped for funding.
Proponents of greater flexibility in tuition hikes say they are needed in order to make Louisiana colleges and universities more competitive nationally. Those in favor of allowing higher education institutions to increase tuition point to Louisiana’s below-average college costs, when compared to other Southern states. Only four states in our region have lower 4-year in-state tuition than Louisiana. According to the SREB, Louisiana is dead last out of sixteen states in total public funding per full-time student, and second-to-last in tuition and fees revenue per full-time student.
Proponents also point out that many students and parents are not taking full advantage of existing financial aid opportunities. According to the American Council on Education, nationally, fourteen percent of dependent and seventeen percent of independent low-income, full-time college students did not apply for federal student financial aid. Many of these students mistakenly believed that they did not qualify, or that they had missed deadlines.
Some education experts feel Louisiana must have a new master plan for higher education that better meets the state’s needs. Among the recommendation:
• Set mandatory admissions standards for all colleges and universities to ensure higher rates of student success
• Return control of tuition levels to Louisiana’s four higher education management boards
• Commit to make LSU nationally competitive by providing funding levels comparable to the country’s leading public research universities.
URLs to check out:
Louisiana State University
Southern University and A&M College
University of Louisiana System
Grambling State University
Louisiana Tech University
McNeese State University
Nicholls State University
Northwestern State University
Southeastern Louisiana University
University of Louisiana at Lafayette
University of Louisiana at Monroe
Louisiana State University System
Louisiana Board of Regents
Baton Rouge Community College
Louisiana Community and Technical College System