JR Ball: LSU should charge on degree value


If we’ve learned anything over the past decade about higher education in Louisiana it’s this: The state no longer views what’s going on inside LSU’s inspiring halls—the ones shaded by those stately oaks and broad magnolias—as critical to its intellectual and economic future.

Certainly not as important as all those corporations, plants and businesses—including rare coin dealers and sellers of antique airplanes—that rack up some $5 billion annually in corporate welfare from the state.

We know this because LSU’s state funding has been cut 16 times since the 2009 dawn of “The Louisiana Miracle,” otherwise known as the Bobby Jindal administration. That, in dollars and cents, is a whack of some $141 million, or more than 53%. The situation isn’t much better under Gov. John Bel Edwards and our current crop of state legislators.

Raise your hand if you think corporate welfare has been slashed by anything sniffing 53% over the past decade. How about 5%? Elected officials here can’t even bring themselves to cut corporate largesse that even Louisiana Economic Development officials say is pointless.

Admittedly, a strong case can be made Louisiana has never given a flip about higher levels of reading, writing and arithmetic, preferring instead for its residents to go through life fat, drunk and stupid on the state’s vast natural resources—agriculture, timber, seafood, oil and gas, and, of course, Mardi Gras.

Admittedly, a strong case can be made Louisiana has never given a flip about higher levels of reading, writing and arithmetic, preferring instead for its residents to go through life fat, drunk and stupid on the state’s vast natural resources—agriculture, timber, seafood, oil and gas, and, of course, Mardi Gras. That said, the state did for roughly 30 years get semi-serious about higher education funding, especially under Gov. Mike Foster. And plenty of people, including every living ex-governor not in jail, did warn the Ivy educated Rhodes Scholar that education wasn’t a waste of taxpayer dollars, but Jindal chose not to listen.

Driving Jindal’s higher education cut-a-thon wasn’t an ever-worsening state budget—though the financial nightmare triggered by his signing off on the repeal of the Stelly Tax Plan did provide fabulous cover. (Worth noting: then-state Rep. Edwards, our current governor, voted to repeal Stelly in the House.) Rather, Jindal was out to slice and dice direct state aid to LSU and the state’s 13 other four-year universities because he believed 1) college campuses were bloated with waste, inefficiency and fat cat administrators, and 2) slacker students—not the state—should pay a majority of the college funding freight.

He was right on many points, wrong on many others but the bottom line is this: Jindal and his minions in the state Legislature—including the chameleonlike Sen. John Alario—spent the next eight years slashing $731 million in direct funding to higher education, reducing state government’s financial role from 61% to 29%.

No doubt, some will argue the numbers are inflated because colleges and universities around the state responded by hiking tuition and fees by a jaw-dropping 111%, a chunk of which was covered by the taxpayer-funded TOPS program. What’s also true is despite the seismic shift of transferring higher education funding from the state to the student, the cost of attending LSU—despite a decade of tuition hikes and the nonstop invention of new fees—remains below the national average.

Given the present-day view that LSU is little more than a user-funded, job training facility with a good football team and a cute, new live mascot, then the Ole War Skule needs to start charging based on the value of its degrees.

Fair enough, but given the present-day view that LSU is little more than a user-funded, job training facility with a good football team and a cute, new live mascot, then the Ole War Skule needs to start charging based on the value of its degrees.

No longer do we hear about the molding of mankind, the greater glory or the ground-breaking research that will perhaps make life easier—and healthier—for us all. Instead we’re bombarded with reports on how much an LSU graduate earns and how little debt he or she carries.

No longer do we debate if a stately oak falls in the Quadrangle and no one is around because of Spring Break does it make a sound? Now, it’s an all left-brain affair where students exclusively train to become worker drones.

According to LSU research, someone who graduated from the Manship School of Mass Communication, between August 2015 and May 2016, earned an average starting salary of $35,025. Given the new world of academia, why should those graduates pay the same tuition and fees and someone averaging $81,490 as a freshly-minted chemical engineer? Especially when it’s far more expensive to educate an engineer than a journalist or marketing wonk.

The highest starting salary for anyone graduating with an English degree, per the survey, was $42,500. There were 20 undergraduate majors where the average starting salary was higher than the lucky soul getting paid $40,000-plus to compare and contrast Keats and Longfellow.

LSU is turning out numerous graduates who are beginning life in “the real world” with salaries less than $20,000. Given the evolving nature of what colleges—sadly—have become is it fair they pay the same freight as those knocking down $80,000-plus? Heck at least four engineering graduates entered the workforce bringing home more than $100,000 and at least two others are knocking down $99,000.

To make this work, the Legislature must first get out of the tuition business. Why is Louisiana the only state in America where this is still a thing?

If LSU feels a singular across-the-board tuition is important, then start charging fees based on the cost of actually educating a student and the value of the degree.

No more should journalism majors, who will live a post-graduate life in near-poverty, subsidize the cost of educating engineers, doctors and real estate developers.

Think of it this way: Does Ruth’s Chris charge the same for a Petite Filet and a T-Bone steak? I think not. And neither should LSU.

Read previous columns by JR Ball

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