La. higher ed rates poor

Consensus exists only in the starkness of the problem

As states have been able to increase their numbers of college graduates over the past decade, Louisiana continues to find itself languishing far behind most of the rest of the country.

Most research agrees that the ability to pull low-income populations into the higher education fold will go a long way in improving a state’s fortunes. Some experts say states can accomplish that through a robust community college system. Others say the best route to improving access to postsecondary education is through a strong system of grants and financial aid.

Various solutions are debated. But there is a consensus on the starkness of the problem.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 21 percent of Louisiana adults have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, one of the lowest percentages in the nation. Accordingly, the state’s median income of roughly $41,700 is the seventh lowest in the nation, while the 20.4 percent of Louisiana residents living below the poverty level is the third-highest in the country.

The nationally recognized poverty level is a $22,314 annual income for a family of four.

The Institute for Economics and Peace, a nonprofit research organization, ranks Louisiana as the most dangerous state in the country with the eighth-worst violent crime rate; fourth-worst rate of gun suicides; the country’s highest incarceration rate; and the nation’s worst murder rate.

Corie Hebert, an assistant professor of social work at Southeastern University in Hammond, explains that Louisiana’s pervasive poverty — 66 percent of school-age children qualify for either free or reduced lunch — also leads to low-birth weights and high instances of infant mortality.

Southern University political science professor Albert Samuels said the state could start to address its problem with poverty by addressing the financial gap among students who don’t have enough to money to pay for college, but make too much to qualify for federal Pell Grants.

“We really don’t do a whole lot, or as much as we probably could be doing to ensure access to higher education,” Samuels said.

The state’s need-based Go Grant program, which is capped at $1,000 per student is not continually protected by the Legislature like the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, which pays tuition and some fees for students who have met certain academic benchmarks, Samuels said.

Closing that financial gap may take on increased importance in years to come as results become clear from a 2011 federal change in the Pell Grant program which eliminates aid for people who haven’t received a high school diploma, said Vickie Choitz, a senior policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy, called CLASP.

Choitz said that many students who hadn’t earned high school diplomas were able to return to school and enroll in community colleges. Before the law change, those students could qualify for Pell Grants provided they could pass six credit-hours or “an ability to benefit” test, she said.

“The change in the law is a real setback for a lot of lower-skilled individuals, because clearly they don’t have the funds to afford school,” she said.

LSU Director of External Affairs Jason Droddy said there is a lot of financial relief available to students willing to dig for it, including work-study programs and dozens of individual scholarships available on campuses around the state.

One of LSU’s more well-known aid programs, Droddy said, is the Pelican Promise for low-income students, which seeks to fill the gaps for housing and food costs that Pell Grants don’t always cover.

Joe May, President of the Louisiana Community College and Technical System, or LCTCS, said the change is going to have to be dramatic if Louisiana is going to be able to keep more and more people from sliding into poverty.

May said 75,000 formerly middle class Louisiana residents fell under the poverty level in 2009-10. “Those individuals were hard workers who once held middle class jobs,” May said. “It’s very clear the sophistication and knowledge required to earn a middle-class wage is going up.”

May explains that one important gauge as to whether Louisiana is on the right track to address poverty will be if the state’s community and technical colleges can keep pace with workforce demands.

The goal is to double LCTCS’s 80,000 enrollment in the next five years, May said. “We need to be on track for 160,000 enrollment in order to have the type of meaningful impact we’re looking for. If we can’t keep pace with employers, we will see our poverty rates grow.”

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said it will take a combination of student aid reform, partnerships with employers and a strong community and technical college system to increase postsecondary access and lower the state’s poverty rate.

Programs already in place: like dual enrollment, that allows high school students to take college courses, and Louisiana Connect which lets students search for scholarships and stay on pace to receive TOPS should increase opportunities for students who likely would have fallen through the cracks in years past, Purcell said.

But it will be critical, he said, for the 14 schools in the LCTCS to align their programs with the kinds of jobs employers are looking for.

“Lake Charles is experiencing growth. They are going to need construction workers, pipefitters and welders,” Purcell said. “Schools like McNeese and Sowela need to get on that, and fast.” Sowela Technical Community College is based in Lake Charles.

Purcell also said he is planning to lobby the Legislature in the spring to make changes in the state’s Go Grant program to “maximize individual need.”

Although a more nuanced Go Grant program would mean some students would be awarded less money, Purcell said the state could use the program in a way to better “maximize individual need.”

Studies show that when 60 percent of a student’s financial need is taken care of, that student has a much higher chance of graduating from college, Purcell said.

“We are always looking for ways to improve success rates,” he said.