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A System Also Rises

August 27, 2009

Though it barely had any community colleges a decade ago, Louisiana is now home to one of the fastest growing two-year college systems in the country. And Louisiana isn't like some states, where community colleges complain of being ignored in favor of research universities -- in fact, nearly the opposite is the case.

While community college officials there are basking in the attention they are receiving from state politicians, some university officials are arguing that expansion of the two-year system has made it more difficult for the state to adequately fund their systems, particularly during the current financial crisis.

John V. Lombardi, president of the Louisiana State University System and occasional blogger for Inside Higher Ed, told faculty at a March meeting about the possibility of a criticized furlough plan that there was more “momentum” in the Legislature in favor of the community and technical colleges than four-year universities. Reporting on the same meeting and of a similar perception, a Baton Rouge newspaper also quoted Kevin L. Cope, president of the LSU Faculty Senate, as quipping that if the community college system received much more attention, the state’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors should be renamed the “American Association of Welding Professors.”

In recent years, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System has made a number of waves, legislatively speaking. Two years ago, it received more than $171 million for capital construction, funding 23 facilities projects on 14 of its campuses. Last year, the legislature approved the Workforce Training Rapid Response Fund, a $10 million pool community colleges can access immediately following natural disasters and other times of crisis when state funds are often slow to respond. Finally, this year, it successfully pushed a bill that will create comprehensive articulation and transfer agreements among the state’s institutions, smoothing the pathway between two- and four-year institutions.

Outside of the legislature, students have also been “voting with their feet,” said Joe D. May, president of the two-year system. The system’s enrollment has more than doubled since it was founded 10 years ago, to nearly 60,000 students. During the same time period, the growth of the four-year systems has been relatively flat. Last year, May noted that Louisiana had 17 of the 50 fastest-growing two-year campuses in the country. South Louisiana Community College, for example, has grown over the decade from only 632 students to 3,531 students. The system now has 10 colleges, some of which have multiple campuses.

“Louisiana has lagged in degree attainment,” May said. “That’s certainly been true for bachelor’s degrees, but it’s especially true for associate’s degrees and other certificates. But, I think for the state, this is a cultural shift in higher education. To have a system that didn’t exist 10 years ago to become, this year, the second largest of the four systems in the state. That’s something.”

Though university officials in the state are lauding the success of the community college system, many also seem to worry that the state’s funding mechanism for all of its institutions may not be sufficient to adequately support everyone.

“The issue in [Louisiana] is that the [community and technical college system] is very very new and not yet capable of fulfilling the role such systems do in states like Florida,” Lombardi wrote in an e-mail. “So [Louisiana] is on track to expand, but now in a moment of fiscal challenge, it’s tough to do everything at once.”

Even so, there is no system warfare in Louisiana, according to Lombardi, noting that both two- and four-year institutions are important and that the idea of “either-or is a false conflict.”

Instead, he believes the real issue is budgetary in nature. He appears to take issue with a Monday recommendation from the state’s Commission on Streamlining Government that all of the state’s higher education systems, both two- and four-year, be governed by the Louisiana Board of Regents, a body to which the systems report but by which they are not controlled. Earlier this summer, a separate review panel, the Postsecondary Education Review Committee, was created by the state and is currently taking a critical look at how to further streamline the state's sytems.

“Some imagine that central planning of postsecondary education in a highly socialized model can produce effectiveness and efficiency and solve the state’s problem without additional revenue or maybe even less revenue,” Lombardi wrote. “This fantasy will fail of course, and serious people are working on more useful competitive, open market models that reward performance rather than political manipulative skills. … The state should allow its higher ed institutions to compete to provide the needed educational services at market competitive prices subsidized by the state relative to the differential cost of the service. [Louisiana] has a model for this cost structure but not the free market competition.”

May also said the community college system would be dubious of such a change to centralize all of the state's institutions. He argued that the different systems' missions would not mesh well under one umbrella organization.

Another illustration of the growing prominence given to community colleges in the state came in a dispute over a four-year institution. Last week, State Representative Sam Jones, a Democrat, told a Thibodaux newspaper that he had heard rumors among his fellow legislators that Nicholls State University could be at risk of being turned into a community college, given that state’s budget troubles. Jones cited Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to further expand the community college system and eliminate duplicate programs across the state in explaining the possible move.

“Personally, and not to contradict Sam Jones, but I don’t think that makes sense and is likely to happen,” May said. “That’s an area with low unemployment and Nicholls State has served vital needs there. Prior to that article, I’ve never heard a word uttered anywhere about potentially changing the mission of Nicholls State. We wouldn’t support it.”

Larry Howell, associate provost at Nicholls State, said he did not think such a change was likely either. He also disputed the notion that the idea to turn his institution into a community college had any more traction with the legislature now, given its recent support of these institutions.

Howell echoed Lombardi’s words, noting that there was no angst within his college about the growth of the two-year system. Instead, he said officials at his institution and others simply want to make sure going forward that the state government does not forget them when finalizing budgets and appropriating dollars.

 

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