Make Pathways Attainable by Making Them Affordable
The Louisiana Talent Imperative commits to greater college affordability, particularly for low- and moderate-income Louisianians. Postsecondary credentials are necessary for getting and keeping a good job, and cost should not prevent talented individuals from accessing them. Even as this link between credential and opportunity has intensified, the cost to the student has skyrocketed as institutions have relied more heavily on student-paid tuition and fees rather than public support.
The figure below illustrates recent trends in higher education funding in Louisiana, showing a near- inversion in levels of state funding and tuition and fees even as total dollars remained flat. This indicates that in less than a decade the funding burden has shifted from approximately 70% state- funded/30% student-funded to 70% student- funded/30% state-funded.
The shift of the financial burden to students certainly affects access, as more students, and a high proportion in traditionally underserved populations, cannot afford to attend college. It also can affect success, as students drop out of programs early and without the intended outcome due to lack of resources. The effects of this shift are exacerbated in Louisiana, where one in five individuals lives below the poverty line.
According to the Southern Regional Education Board’s (SREB’s) Affordability Study, a family earning less than $30,000 annually – 28% of all families in Louisiana – would spend 18% of its income just to afford tuition (exclusive of fees) at lower-cost public institutions. Louisiana’s merit- based scholarship support, through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS), is generous at $1,601 per FTE student, which is almost four times the SREB average – while the state’s need-based aid program, at $161 per FTE student, is less than half the SREB average. The effect of this is to keep postsecondary education out of reach for too many Louisiana residents who could most benefit.
Tuition and fees are not the sole impediment to earning a credential. Non-academic factors including food and housing insecurity, childcare, health care, transportation, and work responsibilities can exponentially increase risks to completion.
A broader approach to affordability is critical to reaching our ambitious attainment goal. For traditional undergraduate students – those moving directly from graduation to college – more rigorous high school courses will lead more students to merit-based TOPS awards and stretch TOPS dollars further. While this is needed, it is not sufficient; the Prosperity Pipeline must expand beyond the high school-to-college bridge. Given high rates of poverty and economic challenges to Louisiana families, the state must demonstrate a stronger commitment by prioritizing Louisiana’s need-based aid program, GO Grants. In addition, Louisiana must develop an effective affordability strategy to support returning adults who have earned a regular or alternative high school diploma and are pursuing credentials in high- demand areas. An adult financial aid program for non-traditional adult students piloted by the Louisiana Community and Technical College System is showing promising early results. We will use findings from this pilot, as well as results from other states’ adult aid initiatives, to improve and expand programs to support returning adults.
The Louisiana Talent Imperative recognizes that education costs students in both money and time. Ensuring access to and promoting the positive impact of a variety of time-saving approaches to educational success – early credit accumulation in high school, innovative stackable and short-term credentials and improved time to degree – will help to reduce college costs.
Ancillary costs of higher education, in particular the substantial costs of textbooks, pose a significant barrier for many of our students. The average student spends approximately $1,200 on textbooks over the course of a year. Cutting these costs through expanded adoption of Open Educational Resources (OER) is a proven strategy, already yielding an estimated student savings impact of $6.14M.31 New investments provided by Regents allow the Louisiana Library Network (LOUIS) to provide more resources to support student savings and further expand OER course development using the state’s OER Commons repository. The OER Commons will allow 260 transferable courses to be aligned to existing OER textbooks and resources, streamlining the course redesign process.
Finally, increasing the Prosperity Pipeline requires that we leverage all sources of support for students, including public benefits, to increase the social mobility of our people. All federal resources provided to individuals, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), should be braided into a system to increase credential attainment and support students in need. Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Individualized Career Services, providing recipients with continuous assessments and identification of barriers to success, would complement, build on, and support educational pathways work, helping students to capitalize on opportunities for training, as well as support local labor market needs. Similarly, state programs such as workforce training and health care can also remove some of the barriers to pursuing and completing a credential. Collectively with improved coordination and alignment, these investments of public dollars can accelerate the number of people on a productive path, over the longer term saving the public sector millions of dollars.
By building a more accessible higher education system, in terms of time, money, and clear roadmaps to success, postsecondary education in Louisiana will be able to engage and serve more students and families. The result will be a better-educated population for Louisiana, leading to a higher quality of life, expanded opportunity, more social mobility, and stronger communities.