Special report: Amid cuts, shift in higher ed landscape, community colleges emerge in Louisiana

Terry Hammatt’s educational journey has been an unusual one.

He received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. Then he earned two master’s degrees — one from his alma mater and the other from the U.S. Army War College.

And last year, Hammatt capped it off by earning an associate degree in cybersecurity from Bossier Parish Community College.

Ironically, perhaps, it’s that last degree — from a humble two-year institution — that Hammatt, a 61-year-old military veteran who also has worked for the state, believes may be his salvation. He has an eye on a job with Computer Sciences Corp., an IT firm in Bossier City that plans to create 800 new positions.

“I want to do information security stuff,” he said. “If everything works out, and I think it will, they’re saying wages can start at $60,000 a year and up.”

Hammatt’s circuitous journey is certainly not the classic American educational arc. It’s especially unusual in Louisiana, where the state’s 15 two-year colleges have historically been viewed less as an end unto themselves than as a fallback for students who lack the money or grades to attend a more prestigious four-year university.

Gov. Bobby Jindal set out to change that pattern eight years ago. Jindal administration officials complained that too few students were enrolled in two-year schools and that arguably too many were at universities.

“We’re producing a workforce that we cannot employ in Louisiana,” Curt Eysink, who served as director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission under Jindal, declared in 2009.

Although critics scoffed at the notion that Louisianians as a group might be described as overeducated, the Jindalites were right about one thing: The ratio of students in four-year versus two-year schools here was high, at 68-to-32. In more states that the Jindal administration saw as worth emulating, like Texas, the ratio was closer to 50-to-50 or lower.

Louisiana’s shift comes amid a national dialogue about the changing landscape of higher education and the need for more workforce-oriented training over liberal arts degrees. President Barack Obama has advocated making community colleges free — a call he repeated on his recent visit to a Baton Rouge high school — as a way of bringing a post-secondary education within reach for more people.

The Jindal administration did succeed in moving the needle toward two-year schools a bit — in part by dramatically raising tuition and admissions requirements at universities. During the Jindal years, the number of students enrolled at four-year schools fell slightly, while the number attending two-year schools grew by nearly 20 percent. The result is that the ratio of four-year students to two-year students is now roughly 64-to-36.

But for all the Jindal administration’s belief in two-year schools as an economic-development strategy, the state hasn’t exactly put its money where its mouth is. Quite the opposite.

Louisiana has cut its investment in two-year institutions by more than a third during the Jindal years — even as Louisiana’s community college system has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing.

The result is that state taxpayers now contribute about $1,650 per community college student annually; when Jindal took office, the figure was $3,508. That’s a drop of more than half.

Average faculty salaries at two-year schools were cut by 14.3 percent between 2009 and 2013, easily the biggest cut endured by any Southern state, and are now the lowest in the South, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. The number of full-time faculty members also was slashed by a whopping 31 percent, one reason the student-faculty ratio at Louisiana’s community colleges is now the nation’s second-highest. But clever budgeting can do only so much.

And it’s not as though the state was spending handsomely on two-year schools in 2008. The cost to the state that year, $227 million, was less than Louisiana has spent in most recent years on tax breaks for various and sundry industries that have come under question, including those for fracking wells and film production. It’s also less than what taxpayers spent on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus that year.

As at four-year schools, as the state’s contribution withers, the burden of keeping the lights on and the faculty paid at the state’s two-year institutions has increasingly fallen on students. The amount a typical student pays in tuition and fees per semester for 12 credit hours has gone up from an average of $1,742 to $3,805 since 2008. By 2013, Louisiana’s two-year schools had the highest “net price” of any state in the South, according to Southern Regional Education Board data.

Moreover, although many students at four-year schools are shielded from tuition increases by the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, few two-year students are. Less than 5 percent of students at Louisiana’s two-year schools get help from TOPS, meaning the tuition hikes fall squarely on a population of students that often is least able to afford higher education.

In its infancy

Although a few of the schools in its purview, such as Delgado Community College, are older, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System is barely in its teenage years. (Two other two-year schools, LSU at Eunice and Southern University at Shreveport, are not under the LCTCS umbrella.)

The system was established in 1999, when most states were much further along in their development of junior colleges. Though it’s been around for 16 years now, the system is still trying to find its voice and footing in a state that has for so long put most of its energy behind four-year systems.

Two-year schools were once expected to try to expand their missions to include bachelor’s and master’s degrees and even doctoral programs. LSU at Alexandria, McNeese State, Nicholls State, Southeastern University and the University of Louisiana at Monroe all started as community colleges.

“We made the mistake of believing that two-year colleges were supposed to grow up to be universities,” said Monty Sullivan, LCTCS’ fourth president, hired in 2014.

Now, many observers think Louisiana has too many four-year institutions and perhaps too few two-year schools.

That’s especially true since the GRAD Act of 2010, along with other changes, imposed tougher admissions standards at public universities — a new barrier that aimed to force unprepared freshmen to complete their remedial work at community colleges. Not only would that improve the four-year schools, the logic went, it would save the state money because credits at a two-year school cost far less.

But while trying to meet that mandate, with shrinking budgets, LCTCS officials also have been scrambling to heed a louder-than-ever call from state and business leaders to produce graduates with the specific skills to fill critical workforce gaps in the state.

“We’re trying to serve the state in more than one capacity, and sometimes those capacities are at odds with one another,” said Jeffrey Weaver, Faculty Senate president of Baton Rouge Community College, one of the state’s fastest-growing schools.

Neither of the system’s primary missions has been going well, at least judging by some metrics.

Louisiana’s “transfer rate” — the percentage of students who transfer seamlessly from a two-year school to a four-year one — was about 5 percent last year, down from nearly 7 percent when Jindal took office. That compares with a national average of about 16 percent, according to Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the National Student Clearinghouse.

But Shapiro also noted the comparisons may be imperfect, as Louisiana appears to be using stricter definitions of transfers and graduation rates.

The graduation rate for LCTCS also has hovered around 8 percent in recent years, well below the national average of about 30 percent. But Sullivan notes that only about one-third of the awards his system hands out are associate degrees; the rest are certifications.

A grain of salt

Officials point out that graduation rates for Louisiana community colleges are based on first-time, full-time students — a common definition for university freshmen but a rarity in community colleges.

The average age of a student in LCTCS is 27, Sullivan said. Many have families and jobs and are enrolled only part time, getting their two-year degree over the course of many years. Only 1 in 11 students in the system thus qualifies as a first-time, full-time student.

“So you’re going to measure our success or failure based on 1 in 11 of our students?” Sullivan asked rhetorically.

Likewise, Sullivan gripes that the Board of Regents’ method for counting enrollment undercounts the number of people his system actually serves, by a wide margin. For instance, people taking adult basic education and those taking non-credit courses — groups that number in the tens of thousands — are not represented in the official count, he said.

Officials acknowledge they need to do better with transfers, but they say the term is defined in a way that makes their performance look worse. They note that students who start at universities, transfer to a community college and then transfer back to the university to finish are not counted as successful transfers. If those students were included, the transfer rate would be closer to 12 percent — still below the national average but not by as much.

The state’s low transfer rates also can be partly attributed to the two-year system’s low profile and its short history. Many states — California is the gold standard — have for decades relied on community colleges to handle students who need extra preparation. Such states usually have strong “articulation” agreements in which four-year schools promise to accept, as juniors, students who have completed two years at a community college.

Joe May, who was president of Louisiana’s system before taking a job to run the junior college district around Dallas, noted that 70 percent of university graduates in Texas start at a community college. In Louisiana, it’s only 40 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The Texas system is designed that way, with twice as many two-year schools as four-year universities, he said.

Not so in Louisiana. “Generally, everyone commutes to New Orleans, to Lake Charles, to Monroe, to Shreveport, and there are two-year and four-year options for students,” he said. “Virtually every city has both, but that’s not true for Texas.”

Although Louisiana has been late to the game, some observers say it’s past time for the state to get its two-year system working more harmoniously with four-year systems.

Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, says some neighboring two-year and four-year schools have nearly seamless partnerships, citing Fletcher Technical Community College in Houma and Nicholls State University in Thibodaux as an example.

“But we don’t have that in all parts of the state,” Waguespack said — in part, he believes, because the schools are competing for students rather than collaborating.

“This shouldn’t be that hard,” he added. “We passed laws to do it. ... Everybody says they want it, but it still hasn’t happened. Other states do it. For some reason, in Louisiana we’ve been talking about it for a decade, and it still hasn’t happened. I don’t understand it.”

Even if their graduation and transfer rates lag other states, Louisiana’s two-year schools are succeeding by other measures.

Enrollment, for instance: The number of students attending the state’s two-year institutions jumped by 17 percent between 2008 and 2014. The number is up 35 percent since 2004.

Those increases have helped LCTCS schools weather the budget cuts of the Jindal years. Having more students, each of them paying more in tuition, has allowed overall budgets to grow, even if the system is spending almost 10 percent less on every student than it did in 2008.

Sullivan says some savings have been achieved by streamlining the once-Balkanized constellation of schools. For example, payroll used to be processed individually at every two-year campus across the state. Now, there’s one office that does it for all 13 campuses in the system. Such efficiencies have saved LCTCS more than $25 million a year, Sullivan said.

Training a workforce

If Louisiana’s two-year schools fare poorly when measured against traditional yardsticks like graduation rates, their leaders say they are making a difference where it counts: the job market.

“All of higher education serves workforce demand,” Sullivan said. “But the bulk of it happens at our institutions.”

Compared with Louisiana’s universities, the two-year schools have more flexibility to respond to the state’s changing needs, mostly because LCTCS faculty don’t have tenure.

And Sullivan and other system leaders say they have taken advantage of that flexibility, working hard to be attentive to what Louisiana businesses need now — and what they’re expected to need amid a wave of industrial expansion. Leaders have made dramatic changes to course offerings, merged campuses, cut about 500 programs and focused on curricula that are aligned closely with job availability.

In general, Sullivan said working to meet the metrics laid out in the GRAD Act pressing for higher graduation rates has been a “distraction” from the system’s more vital goals of producing a skilled workforce.

“Most of our population we’re focusing on is that 25-, 26-, 27-year-old mother of two who is trying to find a job that can sustain her family,” Sullivan said. “You’ve got a workforce commission saying, ‘Align your programs,’ and then you’ve got the Board of Regents saying, ‘Graduation rate matters.’ ”

Today, there are far fewer opportunities to receive associate degrees in “soft” degree programs not directly tied to workforce demand. Carpentry, horticulture, barbering and cosmetology are just a few of the degree programs that have been axed on several campuses.

And the cuts aren’t over. Just recently, system officials eliminated a collision repair degree at North Shore Technical Community College. They dumped an emergency medical technician degree at South Louisiana Community College. And at River Parishes Community College, they eliminated a program to train “shampoo operators.”

LCTCS has retooled itself to focus on seven occupational areas: computer science; construction crafts; electricians; engineering technology; finance and accounting; industrial production; and welding. The state forecasts there will be 14,000 new jobs in those fields every year for the next few years.

Of those, only 2,000 will require four-year degrees, according to an analysis by Louisiana Economic Development and the Louisiana Workforce Commission. The remaining 12,000 will require a two-year degree or certificate.

“The day of liberal arts universities is quickly coming to a close. That’s not to say liberal arts aren’t important,” Sullivan said. “The reality is that higher education is moving closer to market.”

The forecasts focus on $60 billion worth of new plants and plant expansions announced in Louisiana in recent years, which will require thousands of skilled workers both to build the plants and then staff the facilities. The demand for labor also is expected to drive starting wages for such jobs from $15 an hour, where it is now, to $28 an hour.

Eysink, who served as director of the Workforce Commission under Jindal, said with state money so limited, Louisiana officials must prioritize programs that will meet the labor market’s demands. Filling those jobs gives the state a return on its investment in two ways: Graduates with jobs become taxpayers, and the availability of a pool of skilled workers attracts new industry.

“In an environment where everything is fully funded, sure, it’s OK to use money to do exploration at the public’s expense,” Eysink sad. “But if dollars are short and needs aren’t being met, then the budget forces us to prioritize where we spend, and we should be growing programs where we’re not meeting demand.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.

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