[Koran Addo provided a nice write up in The Advocate of a panel I participated in at the Conference of Louisiana Colleges and Universities on Friday, March 7, 2014. I thought I’d offer the full set of notes here for anyone who might be interested].
Presentation Notes for the Conference of Louisiana Colleges and Universities
First, thanks for inviting me here today. My job on the panel is to offer an assessment of how the public thinks about Louisiana colleges and universities, and then offer some guidance on how we might use this information to craft policies and political strategies in support of higher education. This is a topic that I have given a great deal of thought to but have never fully sketched out. What I offer you today remains a sketch but the forms are beginning to take shape and a picture is beginning to emerge (at least in my head).
Let me start with an assumption that guides nearly everything I do. “In a democracy, we get the government we deserve.” We can quibble over how democratic we really are later, but for now let’s apply this to Louisiana colleges and universities – and twist the logic around just a little. “We get the universities and colleges we ask for” OR perhaps better stated “we get the colleges and universities we demand.” The outcomes we live with on a daily basis are not accidental, they reflect a set of political forces, including public opinion, elite political calculations and interest group activity that set boundaries around what is allowable and what is desirable.
With that as the backdrop, let me turn to a puzzle. Since 2002, the Public Policy Research Lab at LSU has been conducting the annual Louisiana Survey. Each year, we include questions about higher education and each year we find strong support for increasing spending on higher education and/or protecting higher education from budget cuts. This year, we tied the question to support for a small sales tax increase provided the money went specifically to higher education.
Seventy-two percent of our respondents said yes they would support such a proposal, only 27 percent were opposed. This is not a partisan issue. Sixty-six percent of Republicans and Independents also support this proposal. Now if you are skeptical – and I hope you are – you might be inclined to dismiss this finding as the result of a single biased question in a single survey. This is decidedly not the case.
In previous years, we have asked different questions but the results are almost always the same. The public wants more – not less – spending on higher education. And when budgets are shrinking, they want higher education protected from cuts. But don’t believe me, here are some numbers.
- From the 2013 Louisiana Survey, 82 percent of residents agreed or strongly agreed that the goal of tax reform should offset cuts to health care and higher education
- From the 2012 survey, 72 percent said improving graduation rates at state universities and colleges are “very important” for economic development
- From 2011,
– 61 percent wanted no cuts to Louisiana colleges and universities to balance the state budget, only 10% supported “major cuts.”
– 88 percent expressed concern budget cuts would affect quality of academic programs, including 52 percent who said they were very concerned.
– 72 percent supported changing state constitution to protect health care and higher education from cuts
If necessary, we could go back to the 2002. The message would be the same. By and large, the public shows strong and consistent support for higher education that crosses region, partisan affiliation, and ideology.
So if this is true (and I promise that it is) how can policy be so far afield from what the public actually wants? The simplest explanation but one that misses a far more interesting story line is to say the public will is being ignored. That elected officials, especially Governor Bobby Jindal, are willfully disregarding public opinion. But if elected officials are actively disregarding public opinion, where is the outrage? Where is the growing public demand for more funding?
The answer – as unsatisfying as it may be for a university professor – is that while the public supports higher education other issues are generally considered more important. When we ask the public “what is the most important issue” facing the state, education and the economy top the list while “higher education” barely merits a mention. In this year’s survey, one person identified higher education as the state’s most important issue. And while the public supports more funding for higher education, it generally finishes third (or lower) on a list of public priorities behind education and health care. When it comes to budget cuts, the public generally wants K-12 and health care protected first.
In the language of public opinion research, we would say that while there is strong directional support for increased funding, it is neither highly salient nor especially intense. In everyday language, we would say support is wide but not very deep. Or perhaps stated even more plainly, despite occasional protests, no mob is storming the state capitol gates for increased funding for higher education.
There is another dimension to this puzzle that is perplexing. Despite the cuts and despite the best efforts of many of the people in this room, the public largely thinks colleges and universities are doing OK, or at least better than other areas of state government service. When we have we have asked citizens to grade state government services across a number of different areas, Louisiana’s colleges and universities rate either at the very top or near the top of various state government activities. In the data shown here, more than two-thirds of Louisiana residents (66.8 percent) gave Louisiana universities and colleges an A or B in our 2011 survey. Overall, this is an area of state government service that people believe is doing fairly well. So why worry about funding in area that is at least doing OK?
To make matters worse, it is not clear that citizens believe that Louisiana’s colleges and universities can get much better. In Spring 2008 just as Governor Bobby Jindal was beginning his first term, we asked citizens whether the state could make major improvements over the next four years, whether the state could make some improvements but that major improvements would be difficult, or whether it would be hard to any real improvements across thirteen separate issue areas. Citizens expressed the least optimism about the possibility of improving the national rankings of Louisiana state colleges and universities. Only sixteen percent thought major improvements were possible. Translation: State colleges and universities are doing OK, and we can’t do much to improve them anyway. My interpretation: There is no great public demand for a higher level of performance.
So what do residents value about Louisiana colleges and universities? Affordability and access. Let’s start with access. For years we have heard that Louisiana has too many four year colleges and universities and not enough technical and community colleges. In several previous studies, we tested the statements together and found mixed support. When we finally wised up and tested the items separately, we found out the public only buys into half of the equation. Sixty-three percent of residents agree that we do not have enough technical and community colleges while sixty-eight percent disagree that we have too many four year institutions. We want more of everything. Rather than read this as specific policy agreement, however, I would argue the results reflect the value the public places on access to higher education opportunities. We want access.
And we want that access to be affordable. The evidence here is indirect but to my mind convincing. When given the choice in the 2012 survey between allowing “colleges and universities to increase tuition to offset budget cuts” OR limiting “tuition increases to assure colleges remain affordable,” an overwhelming majority – 85 percent – want to limit tuition increases. In this year’s survey, when asked whether they would support or oppose a proposal allowing colleges and universities to set tuition without state legislative approval, 59 percent said they were opposed.
Similarly, the public rejects the idea that the total amount of TOPS award should be limited. Nearly three-quarters of residents opposed “reducing the total amount of money qualified students receive from the TOPS program.” There is more support for increasing the academic requirements or providing a flat monetary award not tied to tuition but in both these instances there is also substantial opposition. Let me make two related points here. First, the findings reinforce the value the public places on access and affordability. Second, the findings illustrate the importance of citizen demand on policy outcomes. We will cut higher education funding despite what looks like overwhelming public opposition but we have not yet been willing to alter the TOPS funding formula. The reasoning is very simple the public uproar should TOPS be cut would be much louder.
Before I wrap, I want to return to an important point. The value of college education – not just for the individual but for community. First, a recent report by the Pew Research Center shows a growing disparity between median annual incomes of high school and college graduates by generation. For each generation, the gap has grown. We all know this. Second, and more importantly, is the effect on local communities. The percent of residents with a college education is the most reliable predictor of a community’s economic success. You might have known this as well, but here is what I think is most interesting. People with less education do better in more educated communities. We have to think about our impact not just at an individual level but at a community level and not just in the communities our institutions are located in – but in every community in the state.
Now let me wrap it up with these conclusions.
- We get the colleges and university we demand, so we have created a system based on access and affordability.
- If we want to change that system, changing leadership is not enough. We have to change the conversation. To do this, we need a public education campaign to convince the public to think differently about Louisiana’s university and colleges.
- This starts with economic development and moving away from the tagline that going to college is important to individual economic success. It is, but it is also important for a community’s economic success.
- We have to extend to this to community engagement because – if we are doing our jobs – we are also creating community leaders and the consequences are not just better and higher paying jobs but stronger communities with better, more engaged citizens. Imagine a map of Louisiana showing every college graduate from LSU or from the University of Louisiana system and their level of political and civic engagement. How powerful would that be?
- Finally, we need to demonstrate need in a way that connects to citizens and we need to show them how investing in higher education can yield a payoff. Over the past several years as we have watched our state funding shrink, I have had countless conversations with people outside of academics who say “bet you are glad, they saved you on the budget this year.” It is easy to say the public doesn’t get it, it is much harder to figure out how to convince them that it does matter and that it matters to them in a very personal way. This, to me, is the fundamental challenge in creating a more vibrant and sustainable system of colleges and universities.