Inside Report for Jan. 18, 2013

A new study that compares how colleges across the nation are funded takes a long look at Louisiana and comes to the conclusion that this state is trapped in a sort of higher education purgatory.

More specifically, the “College Funding in Context” study put together by the New York City-based Demos nonpartisan public policy center and three University of Minnesota researchers describes the Louisiana higher education system as locked in a funding mess.

The study’s authors explain that Louisiana’s reliance on low-skilled jobs in agriculture and energy production to fuel the state’s economy has created a culture where higher education isn’t valued, or in other words, isn’t seen as crucial to economic success.

Secondly, that lack of investment in higher education can be linked to a host of social problems including crime and poverty which divert money from higher education.

Put those factors together and Louisiana is in a perpetual funding cycle — essentially spending money to fix problems rather than on the solution, the study says.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell has made the same point, suggesting that increased, or at least stable, funding for higher education leads to acquiring new skills, which leads to more productivity from the state’s workforce, frees up state dollars to be spent on new technologies, increases the state’s output and leads to more wealthy people.

But Purcell’s vision is far from the reality right now. Louisiana’s colleges and universities have lost more than $625 million to state budget cuts since 2008, according to an accounting from the Louisiana Board of Regents, the state agency that sets higher education policy.

Additionally, labor projections suggest further undermining of Louisiana’s higher education system over the next several years.

The study says that only 52 percent of all jobs in the state will require some postsecondary training by 2020. That puts Louisiana at next to the bottom of its peer states in the South.

Louisiana also ranks last in research and development and technology jobs that are associated with economic vitality, the study says. What it means is that Louisiana’s overwhelming demand for low-skilled work at the expense of higher education funding is likely to continue over the next decade, the study says.

The report heavily references research from the public policy lobbying group, Council for a Better Louisiana. The research draws a connection between Louisiana’s low educational attainment and the state’s nation-leading incarceration rates.

“Higher education provides an avenue for Louisiana to address its persistent problems related to poverty, crime, unemployment and asset-building. Yet, at the same time these social and economic challenges become funding priorities that reduce the available budget for higher education,” the report says.

The study gives Louisiana a lot of credit for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, called TOPS, which pays tuition and some fees for students who have met relatively pedestrian academic benchmarks for having made it easier for students to enroll in college.

But it also dings the program for continuing the cycle as it largely benefits students already headed to college and not necessarily in need of the financial help.

Under the “Lessons from Louisiana” section of the report is something that should keep elected officials and anyone concerned about the future of the state up at night.

It says: “Louisiana ranks among the highest states in losing educated workers, illustrating that the state has difficulty gaining traction toward a more diverse, knowledge-based economy.”

Koran Addo covers higher education for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. He can be reached at kaddo@theadvocate.com.