The idea that Gov. Bobby Jindal has to reward colleges on the basis of results which in part can be measured by graduations is a good one. But if not done correctly and in isolation of other considerations, this reform not only will not produce better-educated students, but may produce the opposite.
Presently, the financing formula for state universities inputs the number of students. This creates incentives to get students enrolled, but does not address their successful completion of degree programs. While any education is good, the credentialing afforded by a degree makes it most desirable to have students complete them, and to emphasize to universities’ efforts to facilitate this.
But at the same time, graduation rate is an inexact measure that can punish some universities and degrade the nature of collegiate education if done improperly. It must be recognized that many students start their academic careers at one institution and finish at another and incorporate the realities of placement choices. This especially is true for the state’s urban universities of Southern University – New Orleans, the University of New Orleans, and Louisiana State University Shreveport all of which are not the flagship universities in their systems. For example, only 26.3 percent of the student cohort that started at LSUS in Fall, 2002 graduated with a baccalaureate from any state school by 2007, with about a quarter dropping out after their first year.
One reason why is that some area students use LSUS as a starter school until they can gain entrance or afford their preferred choice, some of which are not a Louisiana public university. Therefore, there may be some students graduating that are not tracked accurately, so any measure who have to account for this. Also, because of lower admission standards (essentially none except equivalency of a high school diploma if older than 24, at LSUS for example), weaker students disproportionately will attend these schools, increasing the likelihood of their inability to remain academically eligible. Finally, disproportionately students who are less interested in college, who typically are poorer-quality students, will attend these schools because of the “free” money given to them courtesy of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, so any valid measure also must take these factors into consideration.
Worse, even if these are factored into creating valid retention and graduation rate measures, universities may dumb down their level of instruction in order to boost graduation rates. Already we have seen this at the high school level in Louisiana courtesy of the implementation of TOPS – high school teachers becoming increasingly reluctant to give lower grades that could cost a kid a chance at a TOPS award. Ridiculous situations of classes graduating almost 20 valedictorians with 4.0 GPAs, averaging above a 3.0 GPA, and two-thirds qualifying by grades for TOPS are becoming more and more common where, if not for the Graduate Exit Exam, there would be no real discriminating measure of high school learning at all.
The same “race to the bottom” could occur among universities. Demanding instructors whose average students may well learn more than the best performers for other instructors because of increased rigor would be penalized because they would give more lower grades thereby reducing the chances of students from meeting graduation standards. Grade inflation already is plaguing universities, and this would only add to that impetus unless some adjustment is factored in. (Interestingly, Jindal’s alma mater on student request issues only pass/no credit marks and does not indicate no credit classes on external transcripts.)
The Jindal Administration has the right philosophy on this matter, but it must be careful how to implement it or it will end up subverting its goal of better aligning resources to educational performance.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 17:45