Realigning Not Closing: A Broader View on How to Maintain Access in Tough TimesMonty Sullivan | President, Louisiana Community and Technical College System
Managing challenging economic circumstances has become the status quo for all higher education institutions across the United States, though in some states the situation is tougher than in others. In Louisiana, state funding for higher education is diminishing rapidly, and in order to ensure that this population continues to have access to high-quality public postsecondary programming institutions have to adjust. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS) recently entered a realignment process to ensure access and quality remained high across its service areas. In this interview, Monty Sullivan shares his thoughts on why the realignment was necessary, and reflects on how the realignment will take shape.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Leading up to this action, what has your board done from a policy perspective to ensure the integrity of your mission?
Monty Sullivan (MS): It’s important to note that the board has not only a fiduciary responsibility but they also have responsibility for the mission. Because the financial environment is such that it has required more attention from the board, board members have developed things like fiscal health monitoring policy that is now in place that means a few times throughout the year the board has an opportunity to take a look at some of the fiscal elements of the health of institution at a broad, institutional level. This gives the board a view not just of the finances but also of the institution’s ability to deliver on the mission. Our board has a really strong understanding of the mission, and as a result of that and of the development of our system as a whole, I think what you see is an element of the mission in nearly every policy approach that we take.
Evo: What is the realignment going to look like?
MS: For the realignment, the eight campuses within the Community and Technical College System will realign to different institutions. Just to be very clear, it’s important to note that this is an effort to expand services and to stabilize and ensure the long-term viability of the mission at these eight campuses.
There are two primary factors that were used in establishing these realignments. The first, and I think the most important, was a realignment that focused on ensuring that we were meeting the workforce demands of a given region. A classic example is one of our campuses that has historically been associated with the metropolitan area in the central part of the state. That economy is primarily driven by the wood products industry. It is driven to some extent by manufacturing, however more recently, probably in the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen the growth and development of the economy in the Southwest part of the state with huge expansions in industrial facilities being built there—particularly around the natural gas and the petrochemical industries. As a result of that expansion in Southwest Louisiana, it makes sense for the campus—which is located roughly between those two metropolitan areas central Louisiana and Southwest Louisiana—to be oriented towards the needs of southwest Louisiana, given the fact that there are tremendous workforce needs there. So our Oakdale campus being realigned to SOWELA (Southwest Louisiana) Technical Community College makes a ton of sense. It makes sense from a workforce perspective; it makes sense in terms of our ability to help people in that part of the state engage in what is a very vibrant economy.
Now the second factor that was considered was financial strength. Over the last eight to 10 years there has been a rapid shift in state funding, which has dropped from about 70 percent to about 30 percent today, which means our tuition—which used to make up 30 percent of revenue—is now responsible for 70 percent. These small rural campuses are more dependent on enrollment than ever before and you have to remember one of the elements that plague small rural communities—not just in Louisiana but across the country—is the decline in population. When you have the declining populations and a greater reliance on tuition, the financial strength and viability of these campuses is in jeopardy. In central Louisiana the technical community college is a strong and growing institution but financially it is not as strong as SOWELA Technical Community College. Having the Oakdale campus realigned to SOWELA made financial sense as well, as that institution will be able to make some investments in that Oakdale campus. Long-term, our hope is to be able to engage a larger cross section of the population there and allow them to pursue not only workforce training but also opportunities to take courses that will lead ultimately to transfer in a baccalaureate degree.
Evo: What impact do you expect the realignments to have on enrollments across the system?
MS: Clearly our expectation is that the realignments will result in expanded offerings in these communities and, with expanded offerings, and expanded enrollment. The board took a series of steps at the March meeting that will help us to accomplish some of that and the realignment is just one of those areas, but certainly we do anticipate seeing increased enrollment as a result.
Evo: What are some of the other efforts that you’re putting into place to drive enrollments to the LCTCS across Louisiana?
MS: One of the things that we’re doing now is making greater use of the Perkins funds, in particular investing in these small rural campuses. We’re investing $100,000-$150,000 or so in each of those campuses to allow them to expand offerings and to attract additional student populations because the reality is these campuses have to become more financially viable and sustainable in the long term, and that doesn’t just happen simply because we identify the issue. We must make smart investments.
Evo: What are the advantages the LCTCS will see from the realignment?
MS: One major advantage is ensuring that the two-year college mission is available to the people all across Louisiana. By having access to that mission, our hope is that we will see a broader cross section of people enrolling in our colleges and able to take advantage of those services. As a byproduct we should see an improvement in out ability to meet workforce demands across the state. We also hope to see an improvement in the number of students who enroll in our colleges, pursue transfer credits and are able to successfully transfer and complete the baccalaureate degree.
When all is said and done this really is not about the advantages to the colleges; it’s about the advantages to the people in the communities. It’s about advantages to helping companies to have the kind of employees that will allow them to be competitive in the marketplace. Also, frankly, it’s to help our university partners to deliver a larger number of transfer students so that folks are able to move on and complete that baccalaureate degree. It’s very important to us that the mission is broadly available to people all across the state and that we’re able to hit and deliver on those metrics that we know are so important to the people.
Evo: How will institutional management practices at colleges across the LCTCS need to evolve to address the challenging budget situation?
MS: Our goal here is to try to find an acceptable level of efficiency that continues to broaden access, broaden the kinds of programs that we offer and increase opportunities for individuals. We are more and more dependant on tuition so providing access to that mission is important but it’s also important to the sustainability of those campuses and the institutions that we are able to convert enrollments. The discussion is not about how many recent high school graduates are enrolled. The discussion is more about how we loop more of the adult population into our institutions. We have seen an average age increase over the last few years, and we believe that’s a positive trend and one that we want to see continue.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the process of going through this realignment and the impact it’s expected to have?
MS: It’s really important to note that this is a realignment and not a merger or consolidation. Oftentimes those words have such negative connotations, and this is not a negative story. This is a story of a proactive board taking steps to ensure the mission for the people of this state. Yes, there are difficult financial times, yes we’re having to make some hard decisions, but frankly, this was an example where a board got out ahead of an issue before it reached the point of crisis and made some really solid decisions from both the business model perspective but also from an mission perspective.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.