Some states place a greater emphasis on higher education than others, and a study of four states helps explain why. Minnesota and Pennsylvania have emphasized the importance of a college degree and that has led to better state financial support, according to Demos, a national, non-partisan public policy center. Louisiana and Colorado have moved in the opposite direction.
The study goes into detail about why attitudes are different among the states, but two readers of The Advocate of Baton Rouge cut to the chase in their comments about Louisiana higher education.
“It is not that the leadership of the state doesn’t value education. It’s the people who live in it do not value education,” one reader said. “That is why you have a high school dropout rate over 40 percent. The kids who hang in until graduation aren’t setting the world on fire, either. You can tell by the average ACT score....”
The second reader said he agreed that education is undervalued by the public, “but I don’t see the ‘leadership of the state’ behaving any differently. Hacking public university budgets, shifting tax dollars to private K-12 schools and granting state ‘approved’ status to private schools that don’t meet curricular standards all reveal a deeply entrenched attitude: that education is for the wealthy, not the poor...”
Minnesota demonstrated 50 years ago it placed a premium on higher education when it passed the “35 mile rule.” It established a college campus within 35 miles of every citizen in the state. And some in Louisiana complain their state has too many colleges and universities. The Demos researchers added that leadership from the Minnesota governor’s office has also been an important factor in more financial support for higher education.
One of Pennsylvania’s keys to success was establishment of its State Grant Program, described as one of the largest student aid plans in the nation. Providing aid to those who need it most is a successful feature of the financial aid plan. Pennsylvania has also benefited from having five separate public and private post-secondary systems that receive state support. Each of those systems has become an effective advocate for adequate state funding.
Colorado and Louisiana have different situations that help explain why higher education funding has declined and why there isn’t more emphasis on the importance of getting a college degree.
“Louisiana’s strong oil industry has slowed its transition to a knowledge-based economy since generations of Louisianans have been successful in making a living without a college degree,” the Demos researchers concluded.
That may be a major reason why the Baton Rouge newspaper reader said the people of this state don’t see the value in higher education. And many of those who do and get their degrees move to other states for better job opportunities. The four-state study found that Louisiana ranks among the highest states in losing educated workers, “illustrating that the state has difficulty gaining traction toward a more diverse, knowledge-based economy.”
“The Colorado case study revealed that recent economic development initiatives in the state have focused on tax breaks for the mining industry, rather than investing in human capital via higher education,” the study said.
Colorado also imports many of its college-educated workers, and they don’t have close ties to the state’s higher education establishment.
Both states have financial aid programs for higher education, but the researchers said they don’t reach the low-income students who need it most.
The TOPS program is the pride and joy of Louisiana governors and state legislators, but they stubbornly refuse to amend TOPS to make it more effective. A Brookings Institution report calls Louisiana a “low tuition, high aid” state.
“Louisiana’s focus on merit aid results in the state ranking lowest in the nation for aid allocated to students with financial need — a mere 16 percent of aid is need-based,” the study said.
The situations studied here aren’t unique to the four states focused on by researchers. A growing national anti-tax mood among the electorate has caused less support for higher education in states across the country.
Two groups are paying a heavy price for citizens not understanding that a 2- or 4-year college education benefits everyone involved. Families, businesses, communities and the states all reap rewards.
Many young people who need financial help to attend college can’t get it. The second group are those students who understand the value of higher education but have to go into deep debt to finance their studies. The Demos researchers said total student debt held by American households outstripped credit card debt for the first time in 2011 — “a burden of more than $1 trillion.”
Those of us who have been able to attend college with financial help or with other means of support need to do a better job of telling our success stories. The education we received has improved our standard of living and enriched our lives beyond belief. Others are just as deserving.
Our governors, legislators and we should do everything in our power to see that financial support is available to every young person in Louisiana who wants to enjoy the tremendous advantages higher education has to offer. It’s not for everyone, but that should be each individual’s choice to make.
• • •Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or firstname.lastname@example.org