Sometimes things happen quicker than you think they will. In 1995 CABL’s first-ever election agenda included an item calling for expanding access and opportunities for students to attend community colleges. That doesn’t sound like a big deal now, but back then no one was even talking about it. As it turns out, that changed quickly.
Just three years later voters passed the constitutional amendment creating the Louisiana Community & Technical College System and now, celebrating its 20th anniversary, it’s one of Louisiana’s great success stories.
Back in 1998, Louisiana was out of step with other states because we didn’t really have a strong community college option. Many of our four-year universities played the role of community colleges to some degree, but that really wasn’t their mission. Yet, it’s clear looking back the need for community colleges was there.
Twenty years ago, Louisiana had about 27,000 students enrolled in its two-year schools. Today it’s more than 60,000. There were concerns at the time that the community colleges would hurt enrollment at four-year schools. While that has been true in some instances, the bigger picture shows us that enrollment in four-year universities is very close to what it was two decades ago, it’s increased significantly in some, and we also have 32,000 more students enrolled in postsecondary education then we did back then.
For a state like Louisiana with an historically low educational attainment rate, that’s critical. The numbers speak for themselves:
- Since 1998 LCTCS has enrolled more than 2.1 million students, including 150,000 last year in both community and technical colleges.
- Those colleges have awarded more than 327,000 credentials which is an average of 16,000 per year.
- In 2017-18 more than 24,000 students graduated from a two-year college and 80-percent of them had a credential in a high-demand, high-income program.
- On average, graduates from the system earn about $40,000 a year, but for those in high-demand fields the figure jumps to $55,000.
Given Louisiana’s economic mix, all of this makes sense. Because of our concentrations in industrial jobs, oil and gas, and manufacturing, our economy relies on a large number of workers who need skills training and a credential to get hired, but not necessarily a four-year degree. We need to further diversify our economy so that we have a better balance in that mix, but that won’t change the existing demand for these workers.
Interestingly, while we rank 46th in the nation in the percentage of adults over 25 with a bachelor’s degree or higher – a rate we need to improve – the Lumina Foundation ranks us 26th when you expand the base to include adults who have earned a certificate. They further rank us first in the country for the percentage who hold a “high-quality” certificate.
That’s encouraging news, but gladly, the system is not resting on any laurels. LCTCS leaders have set some ambitious goals for 2020 which include increasing the number of graduates to 40,000 students per year, increasing the number of students served to 325,000, quadrupling student transfers to four-year-schools to 10,000, and growing the annual earnings of a graduating class from about $723 million to $1.5 billion.
Succeeding with that agenda will be a tall order, but it’s that type of thinking and leadership that Louisiana needs. We need to move needles in a lot of our metrics dealing with social well-being, and our community and technical college system is a place where that can really make a difference.