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Legislators, higher education must adjust attitudes

Parochial legislative and insular university politics may be conspiring to thwart some desirable components to higher education reform in Louisiana, but the situation doesn’t have to be like this.

Last week, the House Education Committee took the first steps towards passing the GRAD Act, known formally as HB 1171 by House Speaker Jim Tucker, into law. A voluntary plan, state universities would have to hit certain performance targets in order to win the ability to increase tuition by at most 10 percent annually until reaching the Southern regional average; currently, they have the ability to raise it five percent for the next two years but then afterwards must secure a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to do so. It also would have allowed removal of the 12-hour cap on tuition; presently, at 12 hours or more a flat fee is charged.

But the latter provision got removed in committee which is an unwelcome development. Critics of it had said it would be troublesome especially for students at historically black universities and colleges as for some of limited means it would raise tuition rates. Yet removal of this barrier is integral to hitting the performance criteria, one of which is graduation rates, because with the cap in place it encourages students to take more hours than they really intend with the strategy of dropping hours in what they feel are their weakest classes, which has the practical effect of shutting out other students from those classes which may delay their graduations.

It also delayed implementation of the tuition hike ability from this fall to Fall, 2012. Tucker stated that legislative resistance to immediate reward without hitting the targets immediately or showing progress (the bill gives four years to meet them) drove this decision, but there may have been more to it than that. Partly explaining this amendment may be a reaction to the Board of Regents’ mandate to schools that a critical component to help achieve the higher expectations, tougher admission standards, could be delayed until Fall, 2012. Legislators might have been disappointed that the new standards did not start this fall.

Another explanation could be skepticism by legislators that any real changes are to come out of higher education with the Act. This has been expressed by legislators concerning the budget, where they have complained that higher education has been the least forthcoming with information of all agencies. This belief is not surprising given that academia considers itself misunderstood by politicians and the public.

But many outside academia in the public perceive a haughtiness to academia and this reluctance only feeds that suspicion as well as brings up questions about what it has to hide. In the current budget environment where higher education is especially vulnerable, this simply won’t work. If you can’t justify something to the broader public, it well may be spending a university need not undertake.

Legislators protecting what they consider turf and university administrators who fear program diminution are impediments to needed reforms. Both need to reevaluate their attitudes if change will optimize the delivery of higher education in Louisiana.

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