Last fall, the University of Louisiana System announced a new plan to increase its annual number of college graduates by 2,700 in an effort to boost workforce development in the state. Grambling State University’s numbers would have to jump nearly three times to hold its weight in that plan, and while university leaders waved off the metrics, the current graduation stats tell a different story.
Last week, officials at Southern University announced plans for a listening tour of sorts to help shape a strategic blueprint for how its flagship Baton Rouge campus will address fiscal and physical plant challenges with an eye towards enrolling 20,000 students in the next nine years. Citing a need to create public and private partnerships and to engage students in new ways, SU System President Ray Belton said the goal was not impossible for the historically black system to reach.
Given the recent history of state support to Grambling and Southern, and other factors surrounding both institutions, it is hard to visualize exactly how these gains will be possible to achieve without historic support from private industries and companies. Here are some of the elements working against the Louisiana public HBCUs.
Ain’t No Money in Louisiana
Grambling State University is the largest business in Grambling, LA., a city that last year publicly talked about how close it was to financial insolvency.
Last spring, GSU had to abandon a library that was virtually inoperable due to deferred maintenance which statewide for public schools is more than $1 billion, and between Grambling and the Southern campuses is a combined $232.9 million dollars.
The state has cut more than $800 million in higher education spending over the last decade, to the point that Grambling is financially considered a private institution because it pays to the state of Louisiana more than it receives in appropriations.
How can two campuses with millions needed for campus renovations, in a state dependent upon fading oil and gas industries for revenues project that government or private industry will play a significant role in their expansion plans?
Louisiana is Losing Population
Lousiana had the fourth-highest net population loss among all US states between 2016 and 2017, losing just over 1,800 residents. That may sound like a low number, but the state at large lost more than 27,000 people who moved to other states. And depending it could significantly impact Grambling and Southern in areas from which they historically recruit and enroll for their undergraduate and graduate programs.
Last year, here are the five parishes which sent the most students to GSU in fall 2016:
- Lincoln – 924
- Ouachita – 542
- Caddo – 339
- Bienville – 146
- Morehouse – 110
Top Five Parishes Enrollment – 2,061 of 4,863 (42 percent of total enrollment)
And here are the parishes which sent the most students to Southern:
- East Baton Rouge – 2,425
- Orleans – 408
- Ascension – 175
- Jefferson – 148
- Iberville – 143
Top Five Parishes Enrollment – 3,299 of 6,357 (51 percent of total enrollment)
Two years ago, the New York Times profiled the increasing number of students who opted to attend college in states bordering those where they attended high school. The numbers taken from 2014 statistics showed that Louisiana institutions enrolled 2,231 students from Texas, its largest provider of out-of-state enrollees.
In 2016, Grambling and Southern both enrolled the majority of their out-of-state students from Texas, but admitted 401 and 232 students from the state, respectively. They aren’t bad numbers, but also aren’t the kinds of figures which bode well for a state with industry and population on the decline.
Grambling and Southern should be aggressive about growing, and there are signs that modest growth is not only possible but likely. Last fall, Grambling went over 5,000 enrolled students for the first time in five years, accompanied by increases in first-time freshmen and a 10 percent increase in freshman-to-sophomore retention rates.
At Southern, enrollment in online degree programs increased by 70 percent, while first-time freshman enrollment jumped seven percent.
These are figures that prove success is possible, but given the state’s regrettable history of divestment and the economics surrounding potential students and their families, do these increase project for GSU to graduate more than three times the number of students its currently graduating, or for Southern to enroll three times the number of students currently on campus in a nine-year period?
It’s more than ambition; it is nearly impossible. And it should leave observers to wonder about why, or who is driving vulnerable schools with worlds of potential to oversell possibilities when most evidence suggests that both schools should brace for more dangerous years ahead?