Within the next 20 years, expect college—and high school—as we know it in Louisiana to look significantly different.
Specifically, the way in which students move from high school to a postsecondary institution will be more intentional, emphasizing the student’s talent development, says Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana commissioner of higher education, who recently sat down with Business Report to give an early preview of the Board of Regents’ 2019 Master Plan.
Indeed, the board—which last year elected Reed to spearhead and execute a statewide vision for higher education—will address hot-button issues like LSU’s holistic admissions process and equity gaps in education, but every issue will be studied through the lens of talent—rather than strictly academic—development. That, acknowledges Reed, will require a paradigm shift in the way the state views the purpose of higher education.
“We have to think about blurring the lines between K-12, higher education and the workforce, particularly in a state that has as much poverty as Louisiana does,” Reed says. “If we think about the K-12 system as a partner in our work, and not as a handoff to us, then we would say, ‘We don’t want more kids to go to college; we want more college to come to kids.’”
At its core, the plan, still in its preliminary stages, aims to answer a lingering problem that isn’t necessarily unique to Louisiana: a workforce skills gap that seems to only grow wider.
When complete, the master plan will be the board’s most transformative since its 2001 Master Plan, which set minimum admission standards and has carried the state over the past 18 years. As with most transformation, however, the changes Reed hopes to implement won’t happen overnight. After an early draft makes its way to the state capitol in April, during the regular session of the Louisiana Legislature, the board will have to form critical partnerships, streamline existing resources and convince an ever-skeptical public that its vision forecasts the future of higher education across the country.
But in a state saddled with meager resources and perpetual budgetary problems, how realistic is it to assume the success of such a Master Plan? Or, perhaps more importantly, what would it cost Louisiana not to try it, particularly since Artificial Intelligence is well integrated into the mainstream?
“The future is here, it’s now,” Reed says. “So the question is, are we going to be last to the game, or are we going to think about these things now and be the first? Because this future looks so different, we have to think differently.”
Going down the pipeline
In its current iteration, the Master Plan is low on specifics but rich in its query: What is the purpose of higher education? Is it for affluent young adults to seek and acquire knowledge for the sake of knowledge, an adage that’s become cliché in the canon of higher ed thought?
Though Reed doesn’t dismiss the philosophy, her response to higher education’s future is short and simple: Developing talent. She eyes the institutions as vessels for solutions to multiple statewide issues, such as problems with health care, incarceration and a dwindling skilled workforce.
To more effectively develop talent, Reed believes in broadening its potential student base. Unlike 250 years ago, today’s college population isn’t exclusively 18- to 24-year-old white men; it includes mostly women, as well as a growing number of minorities and nontraditional students.
“We have to think about people’s time and their affordability so that a degree doesn’t have to be a five- or six-year credential,” Reed says. “How do we stack credentials and think about innovative pathways for these students?”
She’s going down the educational pipeline, meeting regularly with Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White to gauge whether the majority of students could graduate from high school with a work-ready credential in addition to a diploma.
Before leaving her post last year as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, Reed oversaw a youth apprenticeship program where high school students went to class three days a week and worked two full days in the manufacturing, information technology, health care or finance sectors with the promise of graduating with a three-year job contract and a $30,000 annual salary.
It’s the kind of program the Board of Regents will examine as one potential pathway. At the college level, she’s exploring options used in other states, such as block scheduling, where typically nontraditional students tell their university whether they can take classes in the morning or afternoon and their schedules are laid out for them.
“If we think about the K-12 system as a partner in our work, and not as a handoff to us, then we would say, ‘We don’t want more kids to go to college; we want more college to come to kids.’”
KIM HUNTER REED, Louisiana commissioner of higher education
Reed is also switching the board’s academic planning techniques, moving to a “starfish” approach where board representatives reach out to industries in each of the state’s region, asking the private sector to pitch their five-to-10-year workforce needs. The regents staff will then work with regional colleges and universities to craft an academic planning guide, outlining the curriculum pathway students will need to attain a certain job.
Shrinking the pie
Like its 2001 predecessor, this new Master Plan is expected to guide Louisiana’s public universities and colleges for the next couple decades, meaning the real “payoff” could be a generation or two down the line.
Historically, however, Louisiana’s lawmakers—eager to show voters re-election-worthy accomplishments—have demanded immediate returns on public dollar investments. Adding to the funding challenge is the fact state government slashed some $800 million in funding to Louisiana’s colleges and universities from 2007 to 2015 and cutting another $18 million in 2016.
“We’re not going to get back to over $1 billion (in funding), so how can we do a better job in leveraging everything we have and bringing more people into the tent to think about this work?” Reed says.
It’s undoubtedly the toughest hurdle Reed and her board colleagues must clear. And she anticipates it will take extensive rewriting of the higher education narrative in Louisiana.
While she hopes to secure some research and development partners, and will actively look for grants and other financial resources, Reed thinks back to her messaging tactics with Colorado lawmakers concerned with spiraling budget costs.
In Colorado’s budget pie, K-12 education received the most funding, followed by Medicaid costs, then incarceration costs, with higher ed comprising the smallest sliver.
Reed argued that if more funding went to investing in higher education, not as much money would be needed for the other components.
“If we do our job better, the other pieces of the pie will shrink,” she says. “Whatever your point of entry is, this is the solution.”