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Commission must ignore more availability, money advice

Louisiana’s Postsecondary Education Review Committee got off to a start, but using a very erroneous assumption that may poison the entire enterprise.

Its initial meeting, for a body designed to find more efficient ways of delivering higher education in the state, had some helpful information dispersed. Louisiana has one of the lowest graduation rates and one of the highest baccalaureate and above to community college ratios in the country. It also has low enrollment rates comparatively.

Yet a major mistake was made when a representative of a higher education research body stated, “Participation in higher education rises dramatically with availability,” and then asserted Louisiana lacked in this regard. Not only is the statement theoretically untrue, in fact regarding Louisiana is it untrue.

Dealing with the latter, if anything, Louisiana is overbuilt when it comes to postsecondary educational institutions. It ranks sixth in the country with 58 community and technical colleges dispersed across the state in the nation, and eighth with 17 baccalaureate and above institutions, even as in terms of population it ranks only 23rd. The real problem is not enough students graduate from these institutions.

Two factors cause this to be the case. One is that they are not prepared well enough at the secondary level to succeed past that. This has been a problem for years but as school accountability measures of the past dozen years’ implementation begin to take hold, perhaps in another dozen years (absent steps backwards such as potential dummy diplomas) that should be much reduced as a problem (although older potential students disserved by public education in Louisiana two decades or more ago attempting college will continue to be disadvantaged).

The other factor is within the grasp of higher education now: raise standards so that ill-prepared and/or not capable students don’t attempt certain collegiate levels in the first place. This means making entrance into baccalaureate and above universities much more demanding, with some increase also to standards at community colleges. This will have a beneficial domino effect, in that less capable students will filter down to a more appropriate level of instruction given their abilities, boosting graduation rates at all levels.

Of course, this strategy runs afoul of the so-called “common wisdom” touted by those in the educational establishment, that more resources pumped into higher education can be justified by trying to produce more graduates as this presumably stimulates economic growth. But this fails not just practically, but empirically. Regarding the former, one (but not the only) reason why graduation rates are lower than they should be is that too many incapable students are being shuffled into college (encouraged by the low standards of TOPS in Louisiana) because standards are set too low. Once there, they fail to make the cut. Regarding the latter, research shows that an increase of resources going to higher education does not automatically create better outcomes. In fact, after a certain point, increased higher education expenditures create less economic growth because resources that are taken from the private sector are then used less efficiently by government in funding higher education.

So what should Louisiana do? First, there must be recognition that more than enough institutions exist; availability is no problem and no more money need be spent in accomplishing that. Second, it must be understood that existing resources are sufficient but are not used efficiently and/or are misallocated. Third, understanding must occur that tinkering at the margins, such as dealing with program duplication, realigning programs, obvious realignments (some four-year schools existing within miles of each others being combined, for example), etc., by themselves cannot make the dramatic improvements desired. Fourth, the increased demands of secondary education’s escalated standards cannot be watered down in any way.

If the last is achieved, what must happen at the postsecondary level over the next few years is that, first, standards are increased across the board, sometimes dramatically. At LSU Baton Rouge, for example, there’s no reason admission standards, which at present are significantly below that of presumably peer institutions, cannot be raised to their levels. Other four-year institutions in the state can have theirs raised as well by a comparable amount (but starting from a lower base), and few with really no standards at all can be brought into the 21st century by adding them. Basic minimum standards can be put in place at all community colleges, leaving technical school open to those who can’t even meet these.

Of course, this means a drop in enrollments in all four-year schools and will mean some minor retrenchment is in order. But not major retrenchment, because a better education and more emphasis can be made on retention with the additional resources left available not having to be allocated to students likely to fail. So if LSUBR enrollment fell 25 percent as a result of higher standards, a budget cut of only 10 percent may be in order, with the retained resources going to improved instruction (such as with smaller class sizes) and retention efforts, all of which should boost graduation rates significantly.

Tuition dollars (and some state dollars) would follow those now not eligible to go to a four-year place to community colleges, where they are more likely to succeed. The same would occur as more students now ineligible for community colleges make their way to technical schools. In other words, this would realign the same pool of existing dollars in a way that produces better outcomes, the second prong of the strategy.

This can be done over the next decade. Standards gradually can be increased. Hiring freezes can be put in place at baccalaureate and higher institutions, and perhaps if needed at the lower levels as well, to accommodate the new reality. State money can remain consistent overall but not really needing to be increased. What will happen over time is lower total enrollments at the top but consistently higher graduation rates there, while enrollments at the lower levels will increase, as will graduation rates, with the net overall effect being more Louisianans better educated with little in the way of increased funding necessary.

This is bold, challenges the unverified assertions of many, and will gore some sacred oxen in the educational establishment. But it is the optimal path to take so that by 2020 Louisiana will make marked strides in this area without unnecessary expenses. This kind of paradigm shift is what the commission needs to investigate. Accepting uncritically the assertions of those with a vested interest in chanting that more money solves every problem in this area of policy will produce little beneficial change.

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