By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s higher education policy leaders are setting an ambitious goal for the state, striving for six in 10 working-age adults to hold a college degree or other employment credential beyond a high school diploma by 2030.
That’s a high bar in Louisiana, which consistently lags the nation in educational attainment. Fewer than half of adults aged 25 to 64 have achieved such a standard.
But as the Board of Regents does a significant rewrite of the statewide master plan governing public higher education in Louisiana, it wants to spark conversation, encourage achievement and inspire a vision.
“We see it as a call to action for the state,” said Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed.
Louisiana adopted its first statewide higher education master plan in 2001, a document that created statewide college admissions standards, incorporated mission statements for campuses and included a funding formula to divvy up dollars from the state. Adjustments have been made since then, but Reed and the Regents are doing a wholesale rewrite in response to a state law requiring an updated document to the governor and lawmakers by Sept. 1.
Goals of the new plan include expanding access to education beyond high school, eliminating equity gaps between white and minority students and helping adults who long ago left school to get a skills-based credential or other educational training.
While other states often gain their educated workforces with transplants from elsewhere, 96 percent of Louisiana’s workforce is made up of state residents. Reed said that drives home the need to bolster training and educational options here.
“We are not importing talent into our workforce. We have to cultivate the talent we have,” she said.
An estimated 56 percent of jobs require education beyond a high school diploma, but only 44 percent of Louisiana adults aged 25 to 64 have a skills-based certificate or college degree, according to Regents data.
To reach the 2030 goal will require producing 45,000 more credentials annually in 11 years — whether a skills certificate, associate degree or university degree — than students received in 2018. To make that happen, the Regents say, would require significant growth in the credentials obtained particularly by African-American residents.
The Regents say Louisiana will need to sell people on the increased salaries and better quality of life they can achieve with training beyond a diploma. But they acknowledge they’ll also need to sell that idea to policymakers, including lawmakers who help finance technical school and college campuses and slashed state funding for higher education repeatedly over the last decade.
No dollar figure has been placed on the 2030 goal yet, but the Regents clearly see financing needs attached to the attainment level they want to reach.
“We cannot achieve any of the goals at a standstill budget, or with the cuts we’ve taken,” said Regents Chairman Marty Chabert, who works for Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration.
That could be a tough ask of a majority-GOP Legislature that has talked of scaling back state spending and asked whether college leaders have done enough to trim their expenses.
At a recent budget hearing, House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry questioned an Edwards proposal to give $5 million to three campuses under accreditation review, amid concerns they are at risk of losing the validation standard. Henry said the schools should try to “rework their business model.”
“It can’t be, ‘When in doubt, we’ll just go to the Legislature and get more money.’ That’s not sustainable,” said Henry, a Jefferson Parish Republican.
Additional parts of the master plan discussion will include decisions on whether to tweak the financing formula or admissions standards, but the Board of Regents first wanted to set its overarching higher education goals before tackling the other details.
The admission standards in particular have become controversial because Louisiana State University has stopped solely relying on standardized test scores and grade point averages as the key to admission and has acknowledged it granted more exceptions than the master plan allows.