Baton Rouge higher education leaders call for increased collaboration to create more educated workforce

As the leaders of Baton Rouge’s higher education institutions gathered at a forum this afternoon to highlight what they’re individually and collectively doing to create a more educated workforce in the Capital Region, a common theme soon emerged: collaboration.

The leaders agreed that not only has increased collaboration between LSU, Southern University and Baton Rouge Community College in recent years begun to produce better outcomes, but continued collaboration among each other and with the East Baton Rouge Parish School System is vital if Louisiana wants to continuing making progress.

“Inexplicably, we do not do as good of a job at talking to one another between all levels of education as we should, and we have got to do better,” said Dennis Michaelis, interim chancellor of Baton Rouge Community College, who was joined by LSU President F. King Alexander and Southern University President Ray Belton at the panel discussion, hosted by Volunteers In Public Schools.

All of the leaders highlighted a few ways they’re increasing collaboration and communication with one another and the local school system. Alexander announced he and East Baton Rouge Parish Schools Superintendent Warren Drake have recently finalized a plan to bring all of the roughly 3,000 sixth-grade public school students to LSU for a visit in the coming months. The visit is meant to introduce students to a college campus and get them thinking about their education beyond high school long before they ever start high school.

“Our graduation rate starts not only at orientation, but at preschool,” said Alexander.

To that end, Alexander also highlighted a college preparatory checklist that LSU created in conjunction with Southern and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. The document—modeled after one Alexander helped develop while president of California State University, Long Beach—outlines how students and parents should be preparing for college during each school year, beginning in sixth grade. Roughly a quarter million copies have been printed up for statewide distribution.

“We are the perfect community to duplicate what they did in Long Beach, California, and the success they had,” he said, noting graduation rates eventually increased from 65% to 75% with the help of the document and an increased focus on reaching out students well before high school to inform them about higher education options.

When a question was raised about what the higher education institutions need more than anything—aside from funding—all three of the leaders insisted the greatest need is funding. And all three said Louisiana political leaders must stop making higher education funding a political issue.

“Higher education should not be a political football. It should not be a game of who can cut the most or who can be the most conservative,” said Michaelis. “The lives of our young people in our society are way, way too important to be letting it rest on that kind of attitude about education.”

Like Michaelis, Belton said he also wished the focus was not always on money.

“But money matters,” he said. “Resources literally will dictate whether or not we fulfill our promise to the people of Louisiana.”

Following the panel discussion, Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp drove home the real world impact of what the higher education officials had just spent more than an hour discussing. A prospective company looking at Baton Rouge told him just last week that the main reason they’re considering coming to the city is because of the wide range of higher education options here.

“But the question of whether they will locate here or not is purely a question of workforce supply,” said Knapp.

—Steve Sanoski

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