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Green: Higher education needs freedom

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If you’ve paid attention to the legislative session, there is no doubt you’ve heard the furor over the potential for more cuts to state funding for higher education institutions. It was amidst this back drop of conjecture and uncertainty going on in Baton Rouge that Jim Henderson, the new President of Northwestern State University, sat down with me last month to outline his plans for the university and what success will look like.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Henderson’s work during his five years as Chancellor for Bossier Parish Community College, he helped grow the college’s enrollment by 84 percent and increased annual certificate degree completions by 90 percent. More importantly, he helped nudge BPCC towards the direction of being weened off state funding through identifying the needs of students and area employers and then making those needs a reality through private-public partnerships. It, along with an emphasis on excellence that pervaded throughout the faculty and staff, helped make BPCC the fastest growing college in the nation. It’s no big surprise then, that Dr. Henderson is looking to more than duplicate that success at his alma mater.

sean mugHe has pledged to make NSU “the premier regional university in the South.” His vision on how to accomplish this goal is through providing a student experience like no other, emphasizing academic excellence, being responsive to the local and state market, and community enrichment. But more importantly, Dr. Henderson got down to brass tacks with how he sees going about accomplishing these broad goals. It’s not easy and it won’t be simple, but essentially, Dr. Henderson sees that the state needs to remove their restrictions on Louisiana colleges and universities and allow them the ability to turn on a dime in order to meet the needs of students and employers.

He outlined a plan that focuses on state lawmakers producing a transparent, consistent funding process as opposed to the outmoded funding model that is improperly being applied to universities today; empowering institutions to price to the market, which doesn’t necessarily mean raising tuition so much as having the ability to set discounts and tuitions that suit students’ needs; and providing a streamlined regulatory environment that allows institutions to rapidly adapt to market demands and community needs. Now, from my brain, I simplified all that by looking at it as basic free market economics — there is a demand for a course both by students and industry/business, the university needs to have the ability to adequately and effectively supply that course to meet the demand, that course will then thrive or die due to its effectiveness and quality.

As we discuss dwindling state funding for institutions, Baton Rouge still wants the ability to dictate what its colleges and universities can do. So as the current funding model shows that the 2014 fiscal year saw Louisiana provide only approximately 30% of all funding, how fair is it that the state still gets to tell its colleges how to run themselves? More importantly, if these institutions don’t have the flexibility and autonomy to adapt to meet the market’s needs, students will go elsewhere, likely never to return. Then, suddenly, the14,000 graduates needed to fill employers’ demands are nowhere to be found. Louisiana’s $60-80 billion economic expansion shrivels up and dies on the vine.

These are the stakes we’re dealing with. The life of our university and technical college system doesn’t always come down to state funding. Sometimes, it’s about letting the people and institutions who are in the trenches day in and day out decide what is best for themselves and the people they serve, both in and outside the classroom. I’d hate to see Louisiana’s economic renaissance turn into its dark ages because Baton Rouge can’t let go.

Sean Green is publisher of BIZ. Magazine. He can be reached at sean@thebiztools.com