The University of Louisiana System is at the forefront of finally shifting the focus away from the state’s funding problems in higher education to a long-term strategy for colleges and universities to lead an educational and economic renaissance in Louisiana.
Continual budget cuts for a decade before the governor and legislature stopped that devastating trend this year resulted in a huge disinvestment in higher education that transferred the majority of funding for institutions from state allocations to student tuition. That lack of support has created a mood of pessimism for years at colleges and universities.
But University of Louisiana System President Dr. Jim Henderson is correct in stating that there is a need for the narrative in higher education in the state to change sharply. Increased higher education funding should become a priority for the state, but Henderson makes a valid point in stating, “We must talk less about the cost of higher education and talk more about the return on the higher education investment.”
In a new strategic vision for colleges and universities developed by Henderson and presidents of the nine University of Louisiana System schools including Northwestern, there will be increased emphasis on academic success, student success, educational attainment, economic development, research and innovation. Studies show that just 24 percent of Louisiana’s working-age people are college graduates and that good paying jobs in the state for workers without college degrees dropped from 60 percent to 45 percent since the 1990s. The system has established a goal of 150,000 new graduates for the workforce by 2025. Enrollment is growing in the system, which is already the largest in Louisiana, and that increase in students and graduates could be the very foundation for the bigger and better-prepared labor force needed to generate new business, industry and jobs in Louisiana. The UL System’s strategic framework also underscores the intent to expand collaboration with the LSU, Southern and Louisiana Community and Technical College Systems and to increase and enhance partnerships with private and public entities to bolster the economy and improve the quality of life in the state. Schools in the UL System will embrace goals in the strategic plan to recruit and retain outstanding faculty and align initiatives in research, discovery and innovation with the state’s growing need for a technology and knowledge-based economy.
There could not be a more relevant higher education strategy for Louisiana than the UL System’s aspirations to increase educational attainment statewide, empower the citizenry of the state, meet the needs of business and industry in expanding the economy and enrich Louisiana’s communities. University of Louisiana System institutions already have a $4 billion annual impact on the economy, and their graduates have earned $6.5 billion in new and increased salaries over the past decade. The impact of the system will increase substantially in the years ahead with a strategy carefully crafted to create, as Dr. Henderson said, “generational change” in education and the economy in Louisiana.