Incoming President F. King Alexander addresses National Academies Board

When the President of the United States asks for your advice, you must be doing something right.

F. King Alexander height=F. King Alexander will officially take over duties as President of LSU on July 1, 2013.
Jim Zietz/LSU University Relations

LSU's incoming President F. King Alexander was invited to the White House two years ago to meet with President Obama to provide counsel on higher education policy. Alexander and nine other university presidents and chancellors from around the nation were invited by Obama and White House officials because they were, in fact, doing things "right" – graduating students from diverse populations, charging below the national average in tuition and fees, and keeping students out of debt.

Since then, Alexander has had access to White House officials and the U.S. Department of Education's Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter to continue the discussion on higher education and to offer suggestions or ask questions. In April 2013, he was again with Kanter to address similar topics as part of a planning meeting held by The National Academies Board on Higher Education and Workforce.

The planning meeting, held in Washington, D.C., focused on "Critical Challenges and Opportunities in 21st Century Undergraduate Education." During the event, both Alexander and Kanter served as speakers, with Alexander addressing the topic of "A Sustainable and Fair Financial Structure for Higher Education."

The planning meeting was for members of The National Academies, who serve as advisers to the nation on science, engineering and medicine, as well as general higher education issues. Membership in The National Academies is by invitation only, and Alexander was invited to join The National Academies Board on Higher Education and Workforce approximately five years ago.

Alexander said the recent meeting was a virtual who's who of people studying higher education policy. Along with Alexander and Kanter, other attendees included Andrew Ng of Stanford University and co-founder of Coursera; Teresa Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia; Michael Feuer of George Washington University and president-elect of The National Academy of Education; and Camsie McAdams, senior adviser with the U.S. Department of Education.

"The group was pulled together to work on some of the most pressing issues impacting public higher education," Alexander said. They addressed how to revive funding for higher education, how unsustainable the current funding trends really are, and the public's expectations of colleges and universities. Alexander's talk dealt with the unsustainability issues.

Louisiana is Not Alone

"Nationwide, there has been a 50 percent drop in state spending for higher education in tax effort since 1980," Alexander said, noting that "tax effort" refers to the percentage of a budget that goes to a particular funding area. "Everybody in Louisiana seems to think this problem is isolated to Louisiana, but it's not. Louisiana has just finally caught up to the national trends."

Alexander said that while the budget cuts and hiring and salary freezes in Louisiana and at LSU have been problematic, Louisiana is actually 18th in the nation in "tax effort" when it comes to funding higher education. "There are 31 states below us," Alexander said.

So, what is the solution? Alexander said universities need to find ways to do things more efficiently, to utilize technology more, and to find non-traditional ways to serve students. He said one way to do that is by reaching beyond the physical limits of campus, and offering online and off-site educational opportunities. Another way is to reach out to those who have previously dropped out of college and encourage them to return and finish their degrees. "Half of the people who start college never finish," he said, citing the national graduation rate of 54 percent.

F. King Alexander height=Incoming LSU President F. King Alexander, seated at the table, second from left, facing President Obama, was invited to the White House to give his opinions about the future of higher education in America.
Official White House photo by Pete Souza

The World's Best Higher Education System

Another topic discussed at The National Academies' planning meeting was revising what it means to be a land-grant university for this new century.

Land-grant universities, Alexander said, are the result of Civil War-era federal and state partnerships that were designed to create universities that would address the most essential educational needs of the country at that time. That plan created "perhaps the world's best higher education system," he said, and one that has been copied by many countries since then. Alexander argues that instead of moving away from that original mission, land grants should embrace it.

"We need a new federal and state partnership, like the initial one, that uses federal funding or incentives to reverse states' disinvestment in higher education," he said. "Land grants should be addressing the needs of every corner of their state. The problems of the state should be the problems of the universities."

Although funding for higher education has decreased in recent years, causing tuition costs and thereby, student debt, to rise, Alexander noted that in some pockets of the nation, college has never been more affordable. LSU, he said, is one of those examples.

"LSU is a great bargain and value," Alexander said. "Its affordability is a strong advantage, especially with TOPS and all the other types of student aid available." That affordability, he said, is something that should be touted, particularly because LSU graduates are so successful.

It Pays to be an LSU Grad

"LSU is 53rd in the country among all public universities for mid-career earnings of graduates," Alexander said. "That's well above many large, prestigious universities. And because LSU is so affordable, its students graduate with less debt, making the rate of return for LSU grads probably among the best in the country."

But people are often fooled by the old "you get what you pay for" adage, Alexander said, calling outrageously high prices for higher education a marketing ploy.

"People think price is important," Alexander said, noting that many parents and students assume that a higher price tag means a better education. "It shows how little people know about higher education overall. Price is the biggest fallacy in higher education."

He said there are more than 100 universities in the U.S. that charge $50,000 or more per year, and that credit card debt is now surpassed by student loan debt in America.

"The higher education marketplace is full of misinformation," Alexander said. "Markets collapse when there is not enough information for people to make good choices."

Part of the misinformation, he said, stems from the many higher education rankings that all use different criteria to rank colleges and universities.

Keeping Score

In the meetings at the White House, Alexander said the group discussed the need for different types of rankings, for placing value on cost-effectiveness and efficiency, and for getting more information to parents and students. The President's new scorecard for higher education is one of the outcomes of those meetings at the White House, Alexander said.

He said additional White House meetings are scheduled, and The National Academies will continue to tackle these issues and to raise awareness nationwide of some of the problems and potential solutions in higher education.

While Alexander looks forward to continuing to play a role in higher education policy at the national level, he also plans to lead by example. LSU, a land-grant, sea-grant and space-grant university that is often referred to as a "best value" seems to be Alexander's kind of place.

"All of higher education is not alike. There are good players and bad players in this," he said. He plans to continue being one of the good players.