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LA college solutions plentiful; legislative will lacking

I guess now that Louisiana House Speaker Chuck Kleckley chose to bring it up, I can’t be accused of flogging a dead horse on the issue of positioning Louisiana higher education to deliver quality in the face of a changing environment that puts a premium on efficiency and new modes of delivery.

This space repeatedly has offered up policy changes designed to address this goal (the most recent being here), which long-time readers will think sounds like a broken record (speaking of new modes of delivery, in this case of music, perhaps younger readers will not recognize that cliché.) Kleckley’s request in front of media members for higher education leaders to volunteer vigorously their own ideas to some degree pretends that there has not been attempted recently that very effort in an organized fashion, as part of the Postsecondary Education Review Commission, many ideas of which found themselves forwarded as legislation, almost none of which ever made it into law. Another effort dedicated itself just to the issue of governance.

So it’s a bit disingenuous to imply that the higher education community in the debate needs this shrug of the shoulders from Kleckley as a call to provide answers where the Legislature has failed, because they and others already have provided these to the Legislature, which, under Kleckley’s leadership, simply has failed to embrace them. But, in the spirit of bending over backwards to assist, here’s some more of them and repackaged in a way that might get the Legislature to act more decisively than its current tepid GRAD Act framework that pays for mild performance gains.

Of course, the real problem is the system is so overbuilt that the state actually ranks above average in per capita dollars spent (18th) among the states in higher education, yet has among the lowest outcomes. Unfortunately, it is politically impossible to reduce the number of separate campuses, as demonstrated by the relatively recent failure to merge into better health perhaps the worst-performing school in the country but the waste of time in trying to force another merger that made no sense. Politics, not rational allocation of resources, clearly was in control in both instances, so policy must work around this regrettable reality of Louisiana’s higher education policy landscape. Add also to this the duplicative governance structures (essentially, five) generally eschewed by peer states, which have resisted legislative reform efforts.

Useful reform in this environment begins with removing legislative control entirely over tuition. The GRAD Act actually for the first time offered some decoupling of direct legislative involvement over tuition rates, by allowing schools to increase tuition rates somewhat through better performance, but encourages gamesmanship by allowing targets to be set too low. Perhaps as a result, the Legislature has been cutting state appropriations to higher education, which are budgeted this year to fall to 48 percent of the total, where tuition, fees, and self-generated revenues are almost as much at 47 percent. Measures to strengthen the pay-for-performance link and to free legislative control of tuition both failed this past session.

A different option here would be to remove control entirely, but keep a loose link to taxpayer contributions with those contributions locked in at around the current per pupil rate. That is, allow schools to set tuition wherever they wanted, but to create a scale where the higher tuition goes, the lower goes the state per pupil contribution from the baseline, yet conditioned by performance. The better the outcomes, the less the “penalty” in forgone state dollars would be charged as tuition rose. This would give university leaders flexibility in how they approached their missions. Some might believe that the flexibility they get in moving tuition levels around and how they could use that extra money would be worth the tradeoff in that they could induce superior outcomes that would minimize the penalty. Others might feel their markets dictate taking the bird in the hand rather than the pair in the bush and increase tuition marginally if at all.

As a part of this, another measure previously suggested and resisted, decoupling tuition from the Taylor Opportunity Program for Studentss, would have to come into fruition. The free tuition program pays for the schooling of about a fifth of the state’s university population, but with about a third of its recipients losing eligibility at some point and another fifth dropping out, this shows it awards too much to too many. By making it more of a true scholarship program and independent of tuition levels, more efficiently it will fund students truly committed to completing their degrees and reduce needless resource expenditure on those not so.

This approach also would solve many related problems hampering university performance. For example, the problems of the notorious 12-hour (semester-based) cap on tuition, which means free schooling past that number of hours, encourages wasteful overstaffing as students overbook, then drop courses strategically with little financial penalty, would be solved by adopting the above framework.

Complainers that assert tuition increases would discourage some from attending college are blind to the blizzard of aid available TOPS and beyond and to Louisiana continuing to have among the lowest tuition of all the states with its proportion of tuition as a funding mechanism remaining below states’ averages. Make these changes to rate-setting and TOPS, and then much will fall into place, even if the overbuilt nature of the system and duplicative governance issues aren’t addressed.

It’s all in the hands of Kleckley and other legislators. The ideas are and already have been in place, so it’s not a matter of conjuring them up. The real issue is whether Kleckley and others have the political courage actually to pursue them.

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