What causes those low rankings?

HIGHER ED IS ANSWER — Louisiana's low state rankings for many years can be attributed to its citizens lack of more than a high school diploma, which gives it one of the nation's highest poverty rates.

The fact that Louisiana is on the bottom of another ranking of the states comes as no surprise. The Pelican State has been at the top of those bad lists, or near there, and at the bottom of the good lists, or near there, as long as I can remember.

U.S. News & World Report issued the latest rankings, and they are certain to become fuel for the bitter gubernatorial campaign now under way in Louisiana. However, don’t be misled by the candidates.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration didn’t get us on those bad lists over the last four years. We’ve been on them for ages. Eddie Rispone, his Republican opponent in the Nov. 16 general election, promises to get us off the bottom, but he hasn’t told us exactly how he would do it. That’s because it’s a complex problem with no easy solutions.

Louisiana got its highest ranking in eight areas — 43rd place — for fiscal stability. Credit for that goes equally to Edwards and those Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature who helped him stabilize the state budget. Legislators did it by voting to raise revenues to wipe out a $2 billion deficit they faced when they took office in 2016.

The cause of the poor rankings can be easily traced to two areas — education and poverty. Louisiana has too many people lacking the higher education or technical training necessary to fill today’s complex jobs. Qualified workers from out-ofstate are filling many of those jobs in Southwest Louisiana during the current economic boom.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Census report in September said the percentage of Louisiana’s people living in poverty has dipped slightly, but the state remains among the poorest in the nation with a poverty rate of 18.6 percent. The national rate last year was 11.8 percent.

The state’s poverty rate is another reason why there are 1.7 million of our 4.7 million citizens on Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for poor and low-income Americans.

Education is the only guaranteed ticket out of those poverty ranks, and too many of our citizens either haven’t had the resources or the will to get a better education. A high school diploma doesn’t come close to satisfying today’s job requirements. Census data shows Louisiana’s median income level in 2018 reached $47,905, not even close to the U.S. average of $61,937.

All of the harsh realities about life in Louisiana were the reason why the state Board of Regents, which administers higher education in this state, recently came up with a new master plan. The board said its goal is to boost educational attainment for black students and get more adults back into the classroom to learn new skills.

Data produced by the regents shows an estimated 56 percent of jobs will require education beyond a high school diploma in 2020. However, only 44 percent of Louisiana adults ages 25 to 64 currently have a skills-based certificate or college degree.

By 2030, a decade from now, the regents want 6 in 10 working-age adults to hold a college degree or other employment credential beyond a high school diploma. The master plan says if the state reaches that goal by 2030 it will see a $1.9 billion increase in tax collections, while it will also be saving money on the Medicaid program and corrections systems.

Louisiana universities, colleges and technical schools saw 40,000 students get a skills certificate, associate degree or university degree in 2018. To reach the 2030 goal, those institutions will have to more than double that number.

The Board of Regents is asking legislators to increase spending on public college programs by nearly $156 million next year in order to reach some of the master plan’s goals. There have to be more opportunities for dual enrollment that allows high school students to begin college courses early. New college courses will have to be added, more financial aid made available and an increase in work-based learning programs is needed.

Kim Hunter Reed, commissioner of higher education, said, “We can lift families out of poverty and increase Louisiana’s prosperity through strategic investments in education.”

McNeese State University and Sow ela Technical Community College are two of the best institutions in their fields in the country. They are already doing much of the work for this corner of the state that the regents have outlined.

Budget stability and surpluses made it possible for all phases of education to get extra funding at this year’s legislative session, but it’s going to take more years of that to get all of them back to where they need to be. Sixteen budget reductions over a decade were especially tough on higher education. It shifted the cost burdens for colleges and universities from the state to students and families.

Unfortunately, some news reports about that budget request said it wasn’t likely higher education would get that much of an increase. How are we ever going to get off those bad lists if we don’t start reinvesting in our higher education systems? It’s the only solution guaranteed to get the job done.

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