LSU President: Louisiana needs to raise expectations

LSU is failing if the university can’t help lift the state’s low rankings on lists of good attributes and drop the high ratings on lists that measure things such as poverty, obesity and college degree attainment, the head of the LSU System told reporters Monday.

In order for LSU to drive economic development in Louisiana, and become a national player in the world of research, LSU President F. King Alexander said a few things have to happen: The state needs to stop slashing the university’s budget; the Legislature needs to give LSU control to set its own tuition rates and the university must identify areas where it can meet the state’s needs, such as in agriculture and engineering.

“There’s no need for us to be fighting with McNeese or with Nicholls State; we need to be competing with Ohio State,” Alexander said at the Press Club of Baton Rouge. “We won’t get there tomorrow, but we need to set our sights high. We need to raise expectations.”

LSU, like the rest of the state’s colleges and universities, has seen state funding to higher education take a precipitous drop since 2008. The state has slashed about $700 million from schools over the last five years as Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature worked to balance state budgets.

LSU’s Baton Rouge campus has absorbed roughly $120 million of those cuts.

Alexander said the nation as a whole failed to realize in the mid-1990s that the U.S. was losing ground in higher education attainment compared with other countries, and therefore failed to make the necessary investment to stay on top.

He said he would like to see the federal government take a more active role in financing colleges and universities as states begin to scale back their support of higher education.

“I’d like to see higher education treated like Medicaid, where there would be matching funds for states that want to invest in higher education,” Alexander said.

Medicaid is the federal government’s health insurance program for low-income families and individuals.

Medicaid payments assist nearly 60 percent of all nursing home residents and about 37 percent of all childbirths in the United States. The federal government pays on average 57 percent of Medicaid expenses.

Apart from a higher level of public investment, Alexander said there needs to be a better emphasis on value.

Students and parents often look to the rankings found in popular magazines, including Forbes and U.S. News and World Report, when deciding to which schools they should apply.

Alexander argues those rankings place a lot of weight on how much money schools spend and how selective they are in accepting students.

“You get a lot of points for turning away a lot of students and spending money on a small group of people,” Alexander said.

The better way to look at value, he continued, is to look at what students gain from the money they spend to go to college and what they get out of the experience.

LSU’s tuition is 25 percent below the national average, and only 37 percent of students graduate with debt compared to 70 percent of students nationwide, Alexander said.

Meanwhile, LSU students earn higher starting salaries than graduates of many universities that rank higher on the national lists.

Alexander also on Monday waded into the politically controversial area of tuition authority.

A number of the state’s higher education leaders have called on the Legislature to give up its tuition-setting authority and put it in the hands of the schools. The Legislature, so far, has ignored those calls.

Two-thirds of the Legislature must sign off before colleges and universities can raise tuition. It is the toughest threshold in the country to overcome.

Tuition hikes are only allowed through the 2010 LA GRAD Act, which lets colleges raise tuition up to 10 percent each year if they meet certain performance goals including improved graduation and retention rates.

Alexander said that if a school can demonstrate its value, it should have the flexibility to set its own tuition. Fears that schools will raise prices drastically enough to price students out of the market are overblown.

“At LSU we are never going to out-charge or outpace our peers in sending students into indebtedness,” he said. Rather, the ability to set tuition at the university level gives a school more flexibility to make the decisions that most benefit the institution, he said.