Regents strike out with La. lawmakers

In early June, just days after the 2012 legislative session ended, state Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell acknowledged that higher education leaders mostly struck out with the Legislature.

The state’s higher education policy board, the Louisiana Board of Regents, couldn’t get legislators to agree with them on a number of ideas, including bills that would have given them more control over how universities spend money, a bill authorizing them to charge students extra fees and a plan to merge LSU-Shreveport with Louisiana Tech University.

Purcell’s takeaway was that colleges and universities were going to have to find ways to “reinvent” themselves until the regents could get another chance to lobby the Legislature next spring.

The need for a higher education makeover has manifested itself in efforts by the state’s four public college systems to attract more students while also operating more efficiently.

So far, the LSU System has begun a top-to-bottom reorganization of its governing structure; the Southern University System has made strides to become leaner; the University of Louisiana System has started a first-of-its-kind effort in the state to bring college dropouts back into the fold; and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System has developed a program to attract and retain low-income students.

The changes have come about as schools struggle to cope with the $448 million stripped from them since 2008 as Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature maneuvered to balance state budgets. (Jindal’s spokesman, Kyle Plotkin, counters that the cuts are not that severe, because tuition increases partially filled the funding hole.)

Despite the disagreement, there’s little doubt that Louisiana’s public colleges are going through drastic changes.

LSU’s flagship campus in Baton Rouge escaped layoffs and program cuts in 2012 thanks in part to a $5.5 million donation from the Athletic Department.

Additionally, the Athletic Department has agreed to transfer $7.2 million annually — $36 million over five years — to support university academics. The policy also includes a revenue-sharing component where the university would receive more money should the Athletic Department see a budget surplus.

The assist from the Athletic Department coincides with the LSU Board of Supervisors’ plan to consolidate the system’s four autonomous academic campuses, law school and agricultural center into a “One LSU” model with the Baton Rouge campus in the middle and the other campuses functioning as companion institutions.

Interim LSU System President and Baton Rouge Chancellor William Jenkins has said the reorganization would save millions of dollars and move the university forward academically. The entire process could be completed within 18 months, he said.

A search for a new president to oversee a newly designed LSU is expected to wrap up in June.

Southern University System

The Southern University Board of Supervisors, in late October, approved a financial reorganization plan that centralizes information technology, enrollment and financial services under the system office. The move allows the system office to take over some of the “back office” functions that have traditionally been handled at the campus level.

Southern University System President Ronald Mason said he expects the plan to result in cost savings for years to come.

Southern’s main campus in Baton Rouge just completed its own reorganization in July after cutting about 30 degree programs and merging nine colleges into five. Chancellor James Llorens said the slimming down better positions the school to concentrate resources on its most successful programs, like engineering and nursing.

In another move to generate revenue, Southern University at Shreveport, a two-year community college known as SUSLA, recently opened a satellite location on Southern’s Baton Rouge campus in a strategic move to boost enrollment and tap into Baton Rouge’s community college market.

The partnership allows students to cross-enroll, meaning they can take necessary developmental courses through SUSLA simultaneously with college-level coursework offered by the Baton Rouge campus.

University of Louisiana System

Two months after the Legislature left the State Capitol, the UL Board of Supervisors rolled out a plan to boost revenue using the emerging popularity of online degree programs. Starting in May, the UL System will offer a collaborative degree program in organizational leadership for students age 25 and up who have completed 60 hours of college credit.

The organizational leadership degree program allows students interested in disaster relief management to take online classes taught by faculty at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. Students interested in learning how to manage employees in the health and wellness fields would take courses through the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The idea behind the collaboration is to attract students who completed some college, but didn’t finish. Beatrice Baldwin, the UL System’s vice president of research and performance, has said the program will put the system “in a very competitive position.”

Newly hired UL System President Sandra Woodley will oversee the collaboration across the system’s nine universities, which includes the University of New Orleans, McNeese State University in Lake Charles and Louisiana Tech in Ruston.

Woodley is expected to begin her new role this week.

Louisiana Community and Technical College System

Joe May, the head of the Louisiana Community and Technical Colleges System, had some success with the Legislature this year. It was his plan that passed, most notably, to merge South Louisiana Community College with several Acadiana-area Louisiana Technical College campuses.

SLCC, which shares a parking lot with LTC’s Lafayette campus, absorbed the institution’s Lafayette, Acadian, Charles B. Coreil, Evangeline, Gulf Area, T.H. Harris and Tech Area campuses.

May said the merger will save the system money through the consolidation of human resources and accounting departments.

The merger follows trends in other parts of the country to combine technical college training with traditional academic instruction.

Vickie Choitz, a senior policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy, explains that embedding basic math and reading skills into a technical college curriculum is a critical component to making students more marketable as they look for jobs.

May added that the merger, and another one in the northern part of the state, gives students opportunities to learn a broader range of skills on a campus close to where they live. Students who live within 20 miles of a campus are more likely to pursue postsecondary education, he added.

But enrolling students is only part of the equation. To retain students, LCTCS has partnered with the nonprofit New York-based anti-poverty group Single Stop USA to remove the barriers that often keep low-income students from finishing school.

Single Stop connects students with available benefits and services including health insurance, tax credits, food stamps, plus financial and legal advice.

The idea is to have a “one-stop shop” on campus where students can go for assistance with problems that would otherwise cause them to miss classes or drop out entirely.

The program has been running at Delgado Community College in New Orleans for the past year with plans to branch out to other schools around the state, including Baton Rouge Community College.

May has said the program will go a long way to ease some of the “extraordinary challenges” some people face on their way to earning a degree.