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Louisiana Tech president talks of changes in higher education

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Louisiana Tech President Dr. Les Guice talks about changes in higher education to Minden Lions Club members. Pat Culverhouse/Press-Herald

“I’ve been doing this for 37 years almost and there have been a lot of changes over that period of time, but never more in higher education than over the past decade,” Louisiana Tech President Dr. Les Guice said.

Guice, speaking to the Minden Lions Club, says the change of which he speaks is the budget model for higher education. Competition among colleges and universities remains high, but dollars coming from the state are shrinking.

“Seven years ago, Tech was receiving $64 million a year from the state to run the university,” he said. “This year, we’ve received $28 million for essentially the same number of students. Yes, revenues are declining, but it’s happening all over the country in other states as well.”

During the past 15 years, “…we’ve had to absorb about $20 million of our fixed costs. We have less and less money going to doing our mission of teaching students. Still, we haven’t had to increase fees and tuition significantly,” Guice said.

In addition to increases in tuition, difficulties students now face include the accessibility and affordability of college, student debt, a delay among some students in seeking higher education and decisions to attend part-time which impacts getting a degree in the shortest period possible, he says.

Universities have to be more efficient and effective, Guice says, and that means adjusting curriculum requirements for graduation in some high-cost courses. Hours for a degree required in engineering at La. Tech have been reduced from 134 to 124, he says.

While colleges and universities are facing new issues concerning budgets and rising costs, Guice says there’s a challenge created by declining numbers of high school graduates.

“There’s increasing competition for students. Louisiana has a declining number of high school graduates since 2000,” he said. “Louisiana had 38,000 high school graduates at that time, last year there were 34,000. Arkansas increased from 27,000 to 28,000 and Texas went from 215,000 to 275,000.”

Competition for those students has also gone global, and alternatives to degree programs are available, Guice says.

“A student can be in Minden and take courses and get degrees from almost any university around the world. That’s a challenge for a Louisiana Tech,” he said. “And, some students are opting to not go to college but to go to training programs. You can do pretty well as a welder. There are options for people that provide good money and good quality of life.”

Guice believes articulation with community colleges is important to student opportunity. But, he isn’t convinced a program proposed by President Barak Obama is an answer to issues facing universities and technical colleges.

“Tennessee and President Obama are proposing free community colleges,” he said. “That would make it tough to compete. But I have questions about the potential success
of that.”

Looking to the future, Guice says the goal at Louisiana Tech remains on the students and preparing them for new technologies.

“We’re focused on building a national research university for north Louisiana. Our priority stays on our students and offering them an unparalleled education at Louisiana Tech,” he said. “We’re delivering a challenging, project-based, team-based, engaged learning experience where a teacher doesn’t just sit and lecture.”
Increasing student enrollment at Tech is an ambitious goal for Guice and the administration at the Ruston-based school.

“We are aggressively promoting innovation and entrepreneurship and we need to think like an innovator and entrepreneur,” Guice said. “We want to grow the student body. We’ve been hovering between 11- and 12,000 students for about 20 years. To meet our needs, and doing so globally, we have set a goal of 15,000 students by the year 2020.”

Louisiana Tech is currently a tier one national research university, joining only LSU in that designation in the state, Guice says. The school is also rated in the top 25, and in some cases in the top 10, for affordability, value, return on investment and for graduating students with the least amount of debt.

Guice says Tech recently received recognition from the magazine, Business Insider, as the number eight “most underrated university in the nation.” Tech grads have the highest starting pay after graduation and the highest mid-career earnings in the state, “…tangibles that attract good students,” he said.

In the past two years, Tech has seen an increase of 42 percent in first-time freshmen, and during that same period ACT scores have gone from 24.1 to 24.7. Tech has 120 freshman presidential scholars (students with an ACT of 32 or higher), the most national merit scholars, highest graduation rates (an increase of four percent) and the highest student retention rate in the state.

New technology has meant new degree paths at Louisiana Tech, Guice says.

“Three years ago, we rolled out our first cyber engineering degree program, starting with 25 students,” he said. “Now, we’re at 150 and next year it will be even larger. Every company that comes to Tech says they’ll take every one of the cyber engineers we produce.”

Tech’s nano technology program is already known for its innovation, Guice says.

“The first graduate of our nano technology program, as an undergraduate student, developed a process that flows natural gas across fibers at certain temperatures and
pressures that allows the gas to be converted to diesel fuel,” he said.

But, Guice says, cuts in funding makes it increasingly more difficult to continue delivering the type of education today’s student deserves.

“No one can sustain 40 percent cuts. That’s more than my college of engineering plus half my college of business,” he said. “If we cut them, enrollment would drop and I’d have to cut everything else. We need to continue delivering graduates you need, and we need the business community and groups like you to say higher education needs to be funded in a stable way.”

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