College degrees lacking in state

With a college degree, a person is less likely to live in poverty, less likely to be unemployed and, according to a Pew Research study, more likely to have fared well during the recent recession.

Just three in 10 working-age adults in Louisiana held either a community college or a university degree in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, putting the state well below the Southern and national averages.

And while state lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee agreed Monday that those numbers are startling, it doesn’t appear the state government is going to do anything meaningful to reverse the trend, they said.

The state’s top higher education adviser, Tom Layzell, painted a stark picture for committee members, showing that the 28 percent of Louisiana adults between ages 25 and 64 with a degree puts the state among the lowest of the low.

Using census data, Layzell told the committee that the 36 percent of adults in the South with a degree is the lowest regional percentage in the nation.

Within that group, Louisiana is tied with Arkansas and West Virginia for last place.

The percentage for the West, Midwest and the entire U.S. is 39 percent, while the Northeast has the highest rate with 44 percent.

One way for Louisiana to climb out of that hole, Layzell said, is for schools to target the roughly 546,000 students who have attended some college but didn’t earn a degree.

He said if the state could attract just one-fifth of that group back to school, it could boost the number of adults with a college degree into a tie with Texas and South Carolina at 34 percent.

To get there, he said, will take data to find those students, a focused recruiting effort to lure them back to school and, most of all, money to accomplish the first two goals.

State Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia, doesn’t think the money is going to materialize.

“We’ve broken every piggy bank and trust that’s out there,” Mills said. “I don’t see any new funding coming to higher ed except for slow growth.”

State Sen. Eric LaFleur, a Ville Platte Democrat, had a similar take.

“We made a conscious decision, or maybe a less than conscious decision, (to) find ourselves where we are today,” LaFleur said. “At the bottom.”

The Pew study titled “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College” shows why being at or near the bottom is a particularly dangerous position. Researchers found that a high school degree is getting less and less valuable.

For instance, in the late 1970s, a high school graduate would make about 77 percent of what a college graduate earned in annual salary. Today, a high school graduate can expect to earn just 62 percent of what a college graduate makes.

The study further found that students who didn’t progress past high school are more likely to be living in poverty and less likely to get out of it.

“The importance of increasing educational attainment can’t be overstated,” Layzell said.

The state Board of Regents, Louisiana’s higher education policy board, has set a goal of boosting the rate of adults with a college degree from 28 percent to 42 percent by 2025.

Higher education leaders acknowledge, however, that achieving that will be difficult in a state where high school graduation rates are expected to remain flat through 2028.

One way to make a dent is through online degree programs. Larry Tremblay, the Regents deputy commissioner for planning research and academic affairs, said staffers are set to launch “Louisiana Online” later this month. It’s a one-stop website where prospective students can search among the state’s four public higher education systems for online degree programs sorted by subject, campus and degree level.

But Layzell, a longtime higher education executive in Louisiana, Kentucky and Mississippi, said the most important thing is to have a goal. Setting the goal at 42 percent gives state leaders a target to shoot for, he said.

“When you start digging into educational attainment, you have to figure out where your needs are, what’s working and what’s not,” Layzell said.

“I’m a big believer in states’ having attainment goals because it focuses your thinking. You have to ask yourself, ‘How are we going to do this.’ ”

And reaching that goal is good not just for the individual students who would find themselves with increased opportunities, he said. The state would reap exponential rewards as personal income rises, in turn leading to increased state revenue.

“You have to start with a goal. If you don’t focus, you’ll lurch from year to year,” Layzell said. “You could see improvement and get closer to your goal just by natural progression, but you’ll get there faster with a goal.”