Higher Ed at the Edge

ACHE Executive Director Jim Purcell says one of the biggest challenges facing the state is to “assist economically challenged counties and communities in establishing a workable plan for new economic realities.”


Jim Purcell is executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education — the coordinating board for higher education in the state.

Purcell took his post in April. Before heading up ACHE, he held similar jobs in Arkansas, Louisiana, and, most recently, Rhode Island. In Louisiana he was an outspoken critic of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget cuts to higher education.

Key responsibilities of ACHE include planning, approval of new academic programs, and an annual budget recommendation for the governor and Legislature.  

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In September, Purcell led the presentation of a new ACHE strategic plan covering 2018-2030, titled “Building Human Capital: The Educational Path to Alabama’s Economic Success.”

Just before leaving his post in Louisiana in 2014, Purcell told the Associated Press, “My job was to speak for the board. The board felt that funding was the biggest issue. Over time, you have to get people to understand what the issues are. It may take more than one session.”

Purcell, who is 55, was born in Alabama and earned a doctorate in higher education and administration from the University of Alabama.

The steady decline in state support for higher education in Alabama has created a human capital system that is inadequate to support economic recovery. Current state commitment of funding for higher education is at a 50-year low. Alabama’s public colleges and universities are being asked to produce a 21st century workforce on 1967 funding.

Nearly all economic growth is now driven by college-educated workers. There is a correlation between a state’s per capita income and adult educational attainment, and Alabama ranks 46th in the nation in per capita income and 45th in the percentage of adults 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree. Within 10 years of graduation, only 12 out of 100 ninth graders earn an associate or baccalaureate degree from an Alabama public college or university.

While funding for higher education has never been robust in Alabama, recent cuts in state support were some of the largest in the country. Higher education funding in Alabama has been reduced 38.7 percent since 2008, with only Louisiana and Arizona experiencing greater cuts. And when state support is reduced heavily, tuition costs rise to address the shortfall. We are eighth in the nation as a state in tuition being the major driver of higher education.

Since 2011, tuition increased 27 percent, while state need-based aid was cut 83 percent, reducing the affordability and access to Alabama public higher education. In 2014, graduates from an Alabama public four-year research university averaged $22, 179 in student debt — more student debt than either the Southern Regional Education Board or the national average.

Alabama has a two-fold challenge. One is to optimize the success of communities that already are engaged in the modern economy. The other is to assist economically challenged counties and communities. Rural development advocates stress that when 40 percent of a community’s income is from non-work sources — social security, pensions and governmental transfer payments — they need to take aggressive action to adjust the fundamentals of their economy. More than half of Alabama counties meet this 40 percent threshold.

Jobs connected to basic Alabama industries such as agriculture, natural resources and manufacturing have changed drastically over the last generation. In 1967 in Alabama, 80 percent of all employees in these industries had only a high school diploma or less. A generation later, in 2007, nearly 60 percent of the employees in these industries are persons credentialed with an associate degree or higher.

Our biggest challenge is improving access to higher education, by broadening programs such as dual enrollment and increasing financial aid. There has to be a greater investment in needs-based aid.

I believe that Alabama is in a good position to propel forward if it concentrates on things not fully developed yet. One thing that we will be starting this fall is a project to assist high schools to increase the number of seniors who fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. A lot of federal aid is not accessed because students do not complete Pell Grant applications. When we look at Georgia and Mississippi, they have done a much better job. We may have people leaving about $58 million in federal Pell Grant aid on the table.

We are also suggesting a web page be established that will be a single site for applying for all state and non-state aid. Students can apply at one place and have applications sent to different entities. That has been done in some other states with great effect.

And we are suggesting that persons earning an associate of arts or science degree at a two-year college have the ability to have all those credits fully transferred to a four-year university. That policy has been in place in 32 other states for a while.

And we are proposing changes in policy that will give more autonomy to institutions, more flexibility in modifying existing academic programs and speeding the process for new program approval. In Alabama it takes 10 months to approve a new program, and we need to be able to get that down to 90 days. It’s about being close to your customer and being able to speed product to market.

The state of Alabama so far has not chosen to reduce the cost of education with state scholarship aid. Louisiana spends over $20 million on scholarship aid. In Georgia, you have the HOPE Scholarships. The TOPS (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students) in Lousiana. The Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship Lottery. To say we can build the human capital we need without such an investment is very hazardous for our future success. 

Alabama has already committed to the goal of improving statewide attainment (of a post-secondary credential) to 65 percent by 2025. It is important to meet this goal without compromising our commitment to excellence. And it is an ambitious goal. According to data recently published by the Lumina Foundation, only 37.1 percent of the state’s working-age adults ages 25 to 64 have an associate degree or higher.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

Interview by Chris McFadyen

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