LSU President calls for reinvestment in higher education

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU President F. King Alexander speaks at the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU President F. King Alexander speaks at the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge.

Like when Congress donated federal land in the 1860s to establish universities, or when World War II veterans flocked to colleges as part of the G.I. Bill, or when the Russian satellite Sputnik first started orbiting Earth, LSU President and Baton Rouge Chancellor King Alexander told the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge on Wednesday that the United States needs some kind of a spark that will trigger a new era of investment in higher education.

America, he said, dropped to 11th in the world in the number of students who complete a college education.

After leading the world for most of the 20th century, the U.S. is now behind the United Kingdom, Poland and South Korea.

Additionally, since 1995, the U.S. holds the dubious distinction of being the most highly-developed nation in the world in which a prior generation earned college degrees at a higher rate than the generation that followed.

Louisiana, he added ranks 49th nationally in terms of college completion.

“We need to take off these blinders as a state and as a nation. We led the world from 1892 to 1995,” Alexander said. “There is a public benefit of investing in higher education.”

If the trend holds — states slashing funding for colleges and universities — Alexander predicts that public higher education institutions will disappear in the next half century.

Alexander said every $1 dollar invested in a child’s education carries with it a 12 percent return on the investment.

“We have to engage our states to prioritize higher education once again,” Alexander said. “But we in higher education have to admit that we have a college cost crisis.”

More than 150 universities charged students more than $50,000 to attend last year, Alexander said.

Nationwide, student loan debt recently passed the $1 trillion mark, surpassing total credit card debt for the first time.

Alexander said the country has to move beyond the myth that more expensive schools automatically provide better educational experiences.

“We need to focus on value,” Alexander said. “This is where LSU stands tall. LSU didn’t cause the college cost crisis.”

A typical LSU student qualifies for the state’s TOPS scholarship. This means that the majority of LSU students have their tuition taken care of by taxpayers and only have to come out of pocket about $1,000 per year for housing and other costs, Alexander said.

So while 72 percent of students nationwide leave college with some debt, only 13 percent of LSU students find themselves in the same position, he said.

Additionally, a recent survey says the mid-career earnings of LSU graduates rank 34th out of 167 public research universities, many of which charge significantly more in tuition, Alexander said.

If LSU flourishes, Louisiana can expect lower unemployment, poverty rates, crime rates and medical costs, he added.

“This is nothing more than an issue of societal choices. We need to decide what kind of Louisiana we want to be a part of,” Alexander said. “I don’t believe anybody in this room wants to be 49th in the nation in college attainment.”