Letter: Education reform essential

The key to prosperity for Louisiana’s citizens lies in the growth of family wealth. Nothing short of a systemic change from low-income jobs and poverty must be the goal of our state. Such change depends upon the availability of wealth-building jobs resulting from the in-migration or growth of business. Business decisions are driven by numerous criteria, all of which depend upon its ability to make and to retain profits. This is what has made the American economic system so successful.

Postsecondary education is one criterion business uses to make decisions, along with a trained workforce, favorable tax policy, quality of life, fair civil justice, transportation, energy and a favorable regulatory environment. It is inappropriate to believe that any one of these criteria controls the decision process. Higher education certainly provides the means for individuals to improve their quality of life, but it is too simplistic to assert that higher education alone can be identified as the cure for any set of social ills.

Measuring the success of our system of higher education just by comparing annual funding levels fails to take into account the performance of our institutions. In Louisiana, we spend a significant portion of discretionary state funds every year on higher education, but until recently we asked and received little by way of outcomes for our investment. The performance of our schools, as measured by retention rates, graduation rates and alignment with workforce and economic development needs, yields overall very poor results. Duplication of degree programs and failure to eliminate programs with few students or completers are symptoms of the problem. Operating many more institutions than we need, for reasons other than good practice, ensures the reality of underfunding.

It is time we realize that we can never expect to provide world-class educational opportunities if we continue to pour funds into a system cobbled together with insufficient regard for the quality of the education process. Even during the years in which we expanded funding, there was no measurable increase in performance. It is past time to make hard decisions about our expectations of outcomes. Only with certainty that our higher education structure can successfully utilize scarce resources, should we focus unilaterally upon more funding.

In order to be able to attract the businesses which can create family wealth for Louisiana’s citizens, we must be able to provide a system of higher education that is high-performing, properly funded and aligned with workforce and economic development needs. We are not there yet, and are not likely to ever get there unless we fundamentally change the way we approach postsecondary education at all levels.

In Louisiana, business as usual is bad business!

Conrad Appel, chairman

Louisiana Senate Education Committee

Metairie