Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Higher Ed Meltown in Louisiana

First off, this email has been going around, relating to the possible merger of the schools of sciences and engineering at UNO:

Dr. Peter J. Fos, President of The University of New Orleans, is deciding right now on whether or not to merge the College of Engineering into the College of Sciences.  This merger will have a very negative impact on the engineering community for the following reasons: 

1.       The perception by the engineering community will be that engineering is no longer a priority for the university.  Until 1972 the engineering program was housed in a department within the College of Sciences.  The perception by employers before the creation of a School of Engineering was that UNO really did not have an engineering program.
2.       Parents will question the viability of the engineering programs at UNO once the news goes out that the colleges will be merged.  It is already difficult to recruit high school students to attend UNO, and the proposed action will make this task even more difficult.  The perception will be that UNO is “cutting” engineering.  We had this same problem when the last university administration proposed combining engineering programs into one general engineering program.
3.       While within Louisiana, Louisiana Tech and Tulane have combined engineering and science divisions, this action will have a huge negative impact at UNO.  Louisiana Tech, which has a College of Engineering and Science, took this action long ago as a strategic move to align the needs of the engineering programs with the mathematics, physics, and chemistry departments (they have chemical engineering).  There is still a separate College of Applied and Natural Sciences.  At Tulane the combination of engineering and sciences has resulted in a reduced emphasis on engineering.  All other engineering programs in the state are housed in Colleges of Engineering.
4.       The New Orleans area needs an engineering school located in New Orleans.
What can you do? 

1.       Contact Dr. Peter J. Fos, UNO President, and give him your opinion on this merger.  His contact information is:
a.       Direct Telephone 504.280.5536
b.      Fax 504.280.6872
c.       Email pfos@uno.edu
2.       Contact our local politicians as follows:
a.       Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans – 504.658.4800 or mayor@nola.gov
b.      John Young, Jefferson Parish President – 504.736.6405 or JohnYoung@jeffparish.net
c.       Senator Conrad Appel – 504.838.5550 or appelc@legis.la.gov
d.      Other local parish or state legislators who you may know
3.       Contact your company Human Resources Manager or Supervisor and express your concern to them and ask them to intervene in your behalf.
As past Chairman and Member of the UNO Engineering Advisory Board (comprised of every major corporation in the area) for over thirty-five years, I cannot stress enough the importance of your voice in this proposed merger. 

Michael S. Benbow, P.E.
M S Benbow and Associates
Direct 504.836.8976
The merger idea has been shelved, but the layoffs have now started and I'd like to add my thoughts as a current grad student.  

Everyone knows that Jindal has axed $700 million (and counting) from the higher ed budget in Louisiana.  This has hit all state universities extremely hard.  Even LSU has not been immune; LSU has shrunk from 33k+ students down to around 28k students, with hundreds of faculty departing.  Until this year, LSU faculty had not had a raise in 8 years.  Within the UL system, faculty haven’t had a raise in 7 years.  You’re not going to retain your best staff under those conditions, period. I highly recommend this piece from The Advocate: "Rising Tide".  It notes that LSU's out-of-state enrollment has plummeted, while Alabama's has soared.    

UNO has a couple of additional factors working against it.  First, before Katrina, UNO was 17k+ students.  After Katrina, they took an enormous hit in enrollment (the city’s population was halved for a long period after the storm). 
Second, the registrar had a policy of academic probation if students didn’t keep their grades up.  If they didn’t pull up their grades the following semester, they were banned from registering the next semester and were forced to reapply. This policy was on the books for decades, but was unenforced until recently.  When the new registrar announced that they’re following that policy to the letter of the law, they kicked 800 students out in a single semester. 
Third, UNO has implemented admissions requirements that aren’t terribly high, but Louisiana’s high schools (public, private, and parochial) aren’t capable of preparing them adequately. When UNO started requiring a 19 on the math portion of the ACT*, only 8,000 seniors per year in Louisiana were capable of meeting that.  Once again, that number INCLUDES private and parochial schools in Louisiana (which have substantial enrollment).  That’s the entire pool in the state that can meet that (frankly, pretty low) threshold.  If you want to be an engineering student, you’ll need to do much better than that to make it to graduation.  The biggest problem with the low pool is not necessarily the public schools in the Baton Rouge/New Orleans corridor; it’s the rural schools in Louisiana.  The math scores at the rural schools frankly suck (public, private, and parochial). 
With all these factors combined, the enrollment at UNO has plummeted from 17k+ to ~9k currently.  Applications have remained strong, but they’ve taken a few serious hits along the way. 
The state also has a lot of universities all over the place.  We spend as much money supporting universities in such metropolises as Ruston, Hammond, and Monroe as we do supporting UNO in New Orleans, yet the overwhelming majority of the state’s population resides in the New Orleans/Baton Rouge corridor. 
Jindal has, in essence, privatized the state university system in Louisiana.  Instead of fully privatizing them, there’s still state restrictions on the schools though.  The universities aren’t allowed to set their own tuition.  There are other restrictions, for example there are 9 semester hours of English and 3 hours of biology required for all students.  The average degree is ~120 semester hours; that’s 10% of the time at the university that’s dictated by the state legislature.  If fully freed from restrictions, UNO could probably survive on its own.  Also, keep in mind, as bad as it is for UNO, there are other schools in far more dire straits.  In the UL system, only Grambling has managed to balance its budget for the coming year.  LA Tech faces an even bigger deficit than UNO (nearly $2 million in the red at LA Tech for the current year). 
The previous university administrations had kicked the can down the road and met the previous budget problems with shifting reserve funds around and hocus pocus, without fundamental changes to the university.  In their defense, they were assured by the Jindal administration they wouldn’t have to suffer through the cuts year after year and it would pass.  So, they put bandaids in place.  Now the bandaids have burst, blood is gushing out, and the new university administration is desperate to stem the tide.  President Fos is a big improvement over the previous administrators and strongly supports science and engineering at UNO, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with at the moment
As both State Treasurer Kennedy and Clancy DuBos have recently said, UNO built a good chunk of the middle class in New Orleans.  Education, at all levels, is your primary investment in the future.  What’s going to happen next? 
The state has money. Oil prices are up and there's enough money for Jindal to hand out a $4m no-bid efficiency study. For that same amount of money, UNO could more than double the budget for the college of engineering.  

Long term, I'm actually fairly optimistic for UNO.  UNO is still a very good value, but tuition has gone up more than 50% since 2008 (and that’s before Jindal announced he’s allowing the universities to start raising tuition 10% per year to raise funds++). UNO’s out of state tuition is still less than in-state tuition at the California schools.  It offers in-state rates to certain out of state students with good test scores.  If UNO gets through the next few years, I'm optimistic that they'll start to put these problems behind them.  

I'm less optimistic for LSU and here's why: BR Chamber of Commerce plots the death of TOPS.  I've read 80% of LSU students are there on TOPS.  Under that Chamber proposal, if you look at the ACT statistics*, TOPS would be cut off from 89% of Louisiana high school graduates.  The Legislature has been plugging state Higher Ed funds into TOPS year after year to feed the monster, only to discover the following year, the beast is still hungry, partly because the state universities now have less state funding (quite the vicious circle).  Either late in Jindal's term or very early in Jindal's successor's term, TOPS is either going to need a substantial infusion of revenue or Pat Taylor's dream will slowly wither and die.  LSU will not survive the fall of TOPS, at least, not as a flagship university.  

* ACT Statistics for Louisiana in 2012 here.  Look through those numbers.  

++ I still have yet to see a list of "favored majors" under the WISE Act.  The WISE Act is still a very empty proposal thus far.  

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