LaPolitics Newsmaker: Joe May

Dr. Joe May is the outgoing president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. Next month he takes his final Bayou State bow and heads for a place he calls home—the Dallas County Community College District, where his education career started 35 years ago as a teacher.

He said teaching at a community college helped change his perspective about two-year institutions and informed his leadership style. But he was actually working in the private sector in Bogotá, the capitol of Columbia, when he got the call seven years ago to come to Louisiana. Since then he has made economic development and workforce training a priority, all during a period which he describes as the hardest of his entire career, but also the most rewarding.

LaPolitics: What’s the biggest problem on the table for your successor?

Joe May: I don’t think there’s any one problem. We’ve got to keep our promises and keep our commitments. One of the things that we’ve said is that if you trust us with an investment, we’ll solve the problems that exist. If we’ve said we would produce more welders, we’ve found a way to do it. If we said we would produce more nurses, we’ve found a way to do it.

Outside of the people, what will you miss the most?

This state just has some of the most incredible people. So many good friends in the Legislature and in the leadership of Gov. Jindal have been good to us. I don’t think I’ll ever be in the situation where so many people understood what we were trying to do and wanted to be a part of it.

It’s an idea that’s been batted around for decades: to consolidate the higher education under one board. Would that work?

We’ve been a part of those discussions and we’ve made no secret that we don’t think it’s in the best interest for students. There’s still a real lack of understanding about the role of community colleges by many. They still see everything through the lens that’s their own personal experience: a four-year college. When you look at the governance of four-year colleges, it’s a longterm view. Their major programs are pretty stable, but ours change with need. Yes, we have a steady stream of those enrolled in a two-year college to go to a four-year college, but we have much more that are interested in who is hiring.

Do you think admissions requirements to four-year colleges should be higher?

When I look at higher education, I divide it up. There are research institutions that create new knowledge, ideas and technologies, not just in engineering but in arts. They are the creative parts of higher education, and they are essential in higher education. Community and technical colleges support those careers. For every medical doctor LSU produces, we need six, or sometimes as high as 18, other medical technicians and professionals to meet that need. How do we determine that group of students that is prepared for the research level, for leadership and management? And who do we need to be in technical programs?

Would raising the qualifications for TOPS affect the populations at community and technical colleges?

Not at all. TOPS makes sure that qualifications align with institutions. It pushes students that have a higher ACT score and a higher GPA it pushes students into LSU or ULL. Community colleges only have a minute percent of students that receive TOPS.

Last session, lawmakers were sold on a capital improvement package for the community college system because it is now perceived as a vehicle to spur economic development in Louisiana. How long has that been the image of the system?

I liken it to a ratchet. What we do everyday is we wake up, make it click, and the next day we make another click, and we never move backwards. We are constantly really working on every front to communicate with employers, citizens and students about the opportunities that are out there, to talk to policy makers about what we need to solve problems. We have a phrase that I use endlessly: “Colleges have no needs.” People have needs. Employers have needs. Individuals have needs. What we have to do is focus on understanding those needs. The state of Louisiana has granted us the opportunity to leverage resources to meet those needs. I’ve never said we need more money for our colleges.

Some of the package’s opponents claimed it might raise operating costs at those facilities, putting even more strain on the state’s budget.

In the short run, the costs actually go down, because we’re putting in facilities that are much more efficient. Obviously, in some cases, we’re improving our welding labs to meet OSHA requirements, and those will increase costs. In most cases, we’re establishing a permanent maintenance reserve fund. Actually, every community college in the state except two were built using this model. In the Foster administration this process was created when those folks realized that the needs to grow the facilities of the community college system far exceeded the ability of the capital outlay fund to handle. Board members were surprised that this process came under fire. It’s not about college. It’s not about buildings. It’s about getting people the skills and education that they need.

Higher education funding is clearly tight—how does it effect the LCTCS?

It’s a challenge and an opportunity. We’re paying a lot of attention to where each and every penny goes. We’re seeing enrollment increase and dollars not keep pace with that. We’ve done a couple things to prioritize. We have shared IT operations, we’ve saved $25 million a year and put that back into the classroom. We’ve shifted our reliance on state funds to tuition and fees. Over the last seven years we’ve closed 500 programs at our colleges, and we’ve added about 200. We’ve seen tuition grow from $46,000 to $71,000 in the fall, and we serve 101,000 students over the course of a year. We’ve also closed programs that didn’t lead to high paying jobs. That’s how we’ve dealt with it. The problem we’re facing now is, the high paying jobs that are out there, the programs for those jobs are at a pretty high cost themselves. We’ve quit trying to do it all.

How do the graduation rates of Louisiana’s community college system compare to those in other southern states?

You know, graduation rates are really not a good measurement of community colleges. They are designed around research institutions, were students come in the fall, stay four years, graduate, and move on. They track first-time, full-time students that start in the fall semester. Our students start all the time, throughout the year. The metrics only measure 5 percent of our population. They don’t count if students lay out a semester.

We’re seeing funding being tied more and more to graduation rates. Will it be more important that these students graduate in the future?

Absolutely it is important that students graduate. If you look at rates across the state, community colleges have basically carried the load on that, this year graduating over 25,000 students at our colleges, in certificate programs to associate degrees, and only some of those students aren’t counted in the rate. That’s also because more and more, employers require a certain certificate to fill the position. We have a goal to increase the number of certificate completers by 8,000 a year. I’m involved nationally in the effort to find a better measurement. Community colleges have banded together to create something called the “Voluntary Framework of Accountability.” One of my big concerns is that community colleges are often let off of the hook by bad metrics. It’s important how many people we get through, but the measurement to determine that makes the number useless. We should look at workforce admittance, certain certificate completion. It’s a real challenge for community colleges nationally. Bad metrics lead to bad results. Metrics need to be aligned with mission.

Do you think the role of teaching remedial courses falls with community and technical colleges?

That really falls in our sweet spot. When you look at the average community college student, they are older, they are trying to balance school and work and, frankly, they want a job and they are looking for the skills to get that job. Some students that I taught told me they made all failing grades their first year at a four-college, but now they’re knocking it out of the park. I would ask them what happened, and they would say life happened. Now they’re serious. Remedial courses are a primary role of two-year colleges because we are an open door.

Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System, said recently that more students that take remedial classes in four-year colleges graduate than those that take them at two-year colleges.

That’s a misuse of the data. What you’re looking at with four-year colleges is many students that have the intention to get a four-year degree. What we have are students that are enrolling to get a job. We have students that know they need mathematic skills to go into welding, so they enroll in a developmental class, then they get a job once they have those skills. These aren’t 18-year-olds that need help getting on the university track. It’s a sign universities are admitting students that don’t have the skills to be successful in their classes. When we look at where these students should be attending, maybe we should look to community colleges, where small classes could provide them with the help they need.

Would you describe your desk as neat, messy or in between?

My desk is always a little cluttered, but never messy.

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