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22.7.12

Subversion can negate LA higher education positives

Recently, this space reviewed the conditions that lead Louisiana higher education to a point where lack of accountability encouraged by both federal and state policy led to today’s delivery system plagued with inefficiency and subpar performance. A recent report highlights how state policy must continue to evolve, shaped by larger forces, in order to overcome this – and it’s as yet uncertain whether the proper policy response will come.

The Institute for a Competitive Workplace gave the state a lower-than-average overall grade in effectiveness, especially faulting the state for its ability to get students graduated and getting into the system students from lower-income families. But pulling the overall mark up was creating incentives for better performance, which system officials argued was a recent product of policy that should bring about this as time passes. They also argued the strategy shift to increase admissions standards at baccalaureate-and-above institutions while increasing community college capacity also would pay off in retention, the theory being that too many unprepared students got sent to four-year institutions.

With the increase in admissions standards starting this fall, theoretically those who do not meet the new standards would enter community colleges. There, the schools should function to mold students into scholars capable of handling courses that are sufficiently challenging to have them graduate and with a degree making them capable of success outside of academia. At the baccalaureate-and-above schools, with the chaff separated from the wheat, resources can be used more efficiently to do a better job of educating.

However, for this to work, a few assumptions must be made that, without further policy changes, are unlikely to manifest, thereby sabotaging the entire enterprise. Recall that one major component of the reforms to try to improve retention performance is monetary, where additions to or subtractions from state aid to colleges is tied to retention rates.

However, for this incentive to work as intended, campuses cannot game it. The idea is that retention occurs because resources are better deployed, at the community college level used to bring students up to speed and higher up not wasted on students who can’t. But that presupposes that the intent of educators is to do these tasks instead of taking the path of least resistance, which is to lower standards. The easiest thing in the world is to make coursework less, not more as the theory hoped, demanding, principally because the more you ask of your students, the more you must do as an instructor. And there are three reasons specific to Louisiana why that path of least resistance is so much more attractive.

First, the quality of the product coming into the higher education system is low. Despite substantial reforms of the past 15 years, only haltingly has improvement become to come to what once probably was the worst system of elementary and secondary education in the country. And its impact has been disproportionate to different institutions. For example, the vast majority of students who attend Louisiana State University Baton Rouge go there having come recently through a reformed system, because of its admissions standards and attractiveness of collegiate life for students. This creates a greater potential pool of efficiency resource use with so much wheat and so little chaff.

By contrast, at my institution Louisiana State University Shreveport, perhaps one-tenth of all students admitted at any given time have come through the reformed elementary and secondary education system within the past five years. Until this fall, essentially all one had to do to gain admission was to have a high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma or equivalent and be at least 25 years old. Even with the standards coming into place, in essence the same may occur, even minus the age qualification, by graduating or transfering from a community college.

Now, if community colleges do the job right, there might be some improvement. Whether that happens is another matter. The theory is that community college instructors, with few or no non-teaching demands, have the extra time to devote to take students who are behind and mold them into students capable of performing at a higher level. This does not mean that they should be any less demanding in their courses as the same courses taught at a four-year school, but that they spend more time getting students up to speed to handle that workload.

Unfortunately, a common response is instead to lower expectations to match student quality, with not much effort devoted to improvement. Again, it is easier on the instructor in terms of work. Instead of spending hours making up essay exams that provoke critical thinking relying on a broad spectrum of facts and theory that will require still more hours to grade in a meaningful way, it’s so much easier to spend almost no time to toss out a bunch of easy multiple-choice questions that a computer can grade almost instantaneously.

Or, this approach may ease psychologically, appealing to a feeling that students need to be given a “break” of sorts, because they went to inferior schools, they have to work, they have families, etc. But devaluing the degree only harms the student in the long run with the soft bigotry of low expectations. The real world isn’t going to cut them breaks because of their backgrounds; expectations of the need to be a high as for those without as many obstacles to overcome. Helping them do the work isn’t the same as getting a pass on doing the work – but it is harder on the instructor. The grade inflation trend of the last two decades shows how academia – at all levels – has surrendered to making it easier on itself, while disserving students.

Thus, the lack of preparedness reverberates upwards into the schools where community colleges send their students, and is compounded there by similar attitudes. This becomes magnified even further in Louisiana because of another reason, the overbuilt situation of its baccalaureate-and-above institutions and technical schools. Very simply, there are too many institutions, faculty members, administrators, and fixed assets chasing too few students capable of the quality of work expected from the student body, at all levels. It’s ridiculous that the state has more than six dozen separate higher education campuses; even with a undersized community college system, throwing in all of the technical schools means there are almost 50 two-year campuses operating in the state.

This makes the state one of the highest per capita spender on higher education in the nation – even after rolling back, and even more, the large increase in resources given to higher education beginning about a decade ago and lasting the rest of the decade. That’s because the pie gets divided too much, to try to deal with the overcapacity. This creates a buyer’s market, where higher education does everything it can to keep its student numbers up – and thus puts more downward pressure on standards accentuated by retention standards which carry monetary consequences.

As a final reason, in tandem with the generous student loan and financial aid dollars pushed by the federal government, Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students subsidizes students less likely to succeed to go to college. Because its standards are so low – nationally, at least half of all students could qualify for awards that pay for most academic fees – this encourages individuals not sufficiently committed to the scholasticism required in higher education to go to college, where they flunk out. Its nature as an entitlement programs rather than as a true scholarship program follows the same model as with the overbuilt system to which it funnels students – watering down resources that reduce the effectiveness for all participants.

If the situation were different – no slack capacity, students entering college having had sufficiently demanding standards to meet at the elementary and secondary level and/or at the community college level, and a scholarship program that leaves little room for the unmotivated to take advantage of it – then conditions would be much better to avoid the path of least resistance of lowering standards. But that’s not what we have in Louisiana, so it leads to a mentality where, for example, if students complain about or avoid more demanding instructors, it’s more likely that administrators, rather than telling them if they spent more time working on the class and less time moaning about it or exhorting more challenging coursework out of their instructors, instead will put pressure on instructors to ease up and create happier students more of whom are retained – especially when so many of these students see pursuit of a college degree as a credentialing process to which they are entitled if they put in x number of hours (a figure they chose unrelated to actual demands) taking y courses, and not as a process of improving their bases of knowledge and critical thinking skills.

Therefore, the very policy of incentives to improve retention praised in the report has the possibility of being subverted. Unless changes are made, the path of least resistance is to cheapen degree quality in the rush to retain, which accomplishes exactly nothing. Sure, more degrees will be cranked out, but they will be worth less than ever; it’s no accident that the presence of proprietary schools has mushroomed in the last two decades precisely because of the devaluation of degrees from traditional universities sensed long ago by employers has led these for-profit schools to enter and expand the niche.

Thus, to avoid this outcome, several things must be done. First, even if community colleges got the job done by taking the deficient and turning them into individuals capable of scholastic learning and inquiry, the excess capacity at the four-year level of schools still will not be utilized by the greater ability of more students coming from the lower level to tackle quality college work. All of faculty members, administrators, courses/programs, and even number of campuses, will have to be reduced – and not by following the same incentive that is trying to be mitigated here; i.e. not by getting rid of the most demanding instructors because they drive down retention rates. This includes shedding the state of the wasteful idea that every other parish needs to have its own technical school campus.

Second, TOPS needs to be made into a true scholarship program. Raise its standards to make them like the admission standards at LSUBR. This would have the salutary impact of getting students to raise their games before entering college. Make it pay for everything, fees included (not now covered). And from the savings of the smaller number of these the taxpayer would have to pick up, to qualifying students from lower-income families create special lending programs with generous terms to pay for non-academic expenses. With these on the line, retention will increase naturally, not only because of the available incentives, but also because those who don’t qualify now will go to school on their own dimes who won’t be wasting somebody else’s money but theirs if they don’t do what is necessary to succeed. Student performance needed to obtain a valuable degree depends not only on faculty members providing demanding coursework, but also on the incentives to have students be willing to put forth more effort to succeed in this quest.

Third, create a new kind of TOPS award for community college transfers. After getting an associates’ degree, apply the same (higher) standards as if coming out of high school (this means retaking the American College Test) – and provide financial rewards for community colleges tied to qualification rates. This creates the incentive for community colleges and their students to perform better before transfer and puts them in a better position to succeed at the next level.

Naturally, the policy-making environment for these reforms is poor. Special interests in higher education will resist them, as well as legislators whose vested interests and/or ideologies are invested in the current inefficient system of reduced effectiveness. Yet if they are allowed to stifle changes such as these, the promise of policy recognized in the report will wither into a nightmare of a higher education delivery still limping along, overbuilt, underperforming, little different from what we have now despite optimistic words and high but premature praise.

1 comment:

NOTAROBOT said...

The Advocate says the Governor is totally not transparent.

What say you?