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Panel's uneven choices need fixing before conclusion

Louisiana’s Postsecondary Education Review Commission, assigned to find ways to make the state’s higher education work more efficiently, made some more decisions about recommendations for policy changes that are more uneven than the good work it has done to this point, with undesirable consequences unless fixed.

It produced two notable suggestions, which will be forwarded next month for disposition by the Legislature, from its latest meeting. First, it argued that the state should merge its several higher education governance boards into three, one for community and technical colleges, one for baccalaureate-and-above institutions, and the Board of Regents where the latter would provide overall policy coordination while the others concentrated on operational aspects. However, it said this should occur only if certain benchmarks were not achieved by 2014.

This was disappointing because the benefits of consolidation stand independently of any timeframe or other goals. Why have three different systems for baccalaureate-and-above schools (with a community college thrown into one of them) when their tasks essentially are the same? Perhaps it was a bow to political expediency because the constituencies built up behind the different systems would make difficult the merger, and some kind of signal of failure to create an imperative may have been thought necessary to have any chance of getting this through a majority of the Legislature, and with two-thirds voting approval by the public (as this necessitates a constitutional amendment).

The Commission also recommended that, for funding purposes, money forwarded to schools be based upon enrollments at the end of, rather than close to the beginning of, a term. This was said to be a way to boost graduation rates, the theory seeming to be that if schools put more efforts, whatever those could be, to get students to stick it out in classes rather than drop them, they’d complete degrees faster (although whether any more might complete them is questionable).

But this approach has an air of unreality about it, and one wonders how long it’s been since the panel members from higher education have set foot in a classroom. The presumed theory here seems to be that it is primarily the fault of the institution and its employees that students drop classes. Instead, by far the main reason students enroll in a class, then drop it (by an predetermined due date set by schools) is because they think it’s too hard given their circumstances – over-commitment, changes in job or family or financial status, or, frankly, they aren’t bright enough, prepared enough, or willing to work hard enough to mitigate these shortcomings to succeed in it. These really are beyond the control of a faculty member or institution committed to quality higher education yet they would be punished for this.

Regrettably, this could lead to a very insidious situation that perverts the goal of improving education. This suggestion counterproductively would encourage schools to dumb down their classes to minimize the proportion of drops. However, this could be mitigated to a large degree if the quality of students would rise, this better ability allowing them to better handle the causes of drops the elevation of which can occur in one or more of three ways: improve their education at the elementary and secondary level, increase admission standards, and/or increase qualifications to receive a Taylor Opportunity Program for Students award, the program that pays tuition annually up to the level of the highest from a state school for qualifiers that keep up their grades.

A third attempted recommendation tangentially tried to address one of these factors, changing the nature of TOPS. It wisely recommended that qualification standards be significantly elevated, from the top half of a graduating high school class to the top tenth, and (it depends upon the kind of TOPS award) from an American College Test score not too far above or below the national average to one in the top 10 percent nationally. As was pointed out in the offering of this motion, the current lax standards make it less a scholarship program and more an entitlement program.

Unfortunately, this was coupled with another suggestion that also mooted to some degree its scholarship nature when it was recommended that caps be put in place on the amounts at $2,500 for the first two and $4,500 for the last two years of college. This was argued as beneficial on the grounds that it would steer more students to community colleges (which typically charge less in tuition) and savings could be transferred to need-based efforts.
But this approach took a sledgehammer to pound in a staple. Why deliberately steer good students with few resources to community colleges, when the purpose of a two-year school should be to concentrate more on the teaching and students support aspects and provide more basic (and thereby less difficult) classes because the target student population is less academically advanced? This would be a waste of their potentials. And, if the goal is to keep superior students in state, why cap the scholarships as they will get better offers to go elsewhere?

Much better would be to create a tiered system based upon the 10 percent criteria. If a student met only the graduation rank one, then the $2,500 could be awarded. If a student met only the score one, then $4,500 could be awarded. If a student met both, as is now give the highest tuition charged by a state school. And then return any money that would be “saved” compared to the current regime to higher education without strings in order to improve their quality instead of to “needy” students – this structure will take care of their tuition for most of them and the rest is easier for them to manage from there.

This kind of proposal would have reduced the likelihood that the funding proposal would have deleterious effects on quality of instruction As it was, the baby got thrown out with the bathwater when the whole actual thing, rightly with the caps in place, was voted down. As such, this means the Legislature should ignore the funding base change that will be forwarded.

PERC should revisit this issue making the alterations demonstrated above in the few meetings it has left before required issuance of its report. Otherwise, it negates some of its own work and misses opportunities for greater service.

1 comment:

JamesS said...

PERC has demonstrated an incredible ability to screw up most everything they touch and you outline new and idiotic fields of endeavor for them. Apparently they don't understand what the term consolidation means. The rest of the world does it better with ONE board and not one with a hundred, per diem drawing members.

Their proposals on funding for colleges and TOPS (though we need to stiffen requirements) are just plain stupid and must have been formulated after that third martini. God help us-governemnt as we have it certainly will not...