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Protecting current system continues inefficiencies ...

About a hundred miles apart, two distinct audiences, one representing well-educated, well-paid, and high-status state employees, and another composed primarily of working- and middle-class civil servants whined similar tunes of privilege and entitlement funded by taxpayers as Louisiana looks to avert a spectacular budget crisis.

Earlier, in Baton Rouge, the Postsecondary Education Review Commission heard from the Louisiana State University system, my employer who definitely does not speak for me on this issue and vice-versa. It was in response to previous testimony that suggested some kind of restructuring or change of priorities, which could lead to lower enrollments at baccalaureate-and-above degree granting institutions, instead of shoveling more money at education was needed in light of looming, massive cuts to higher education as a result of budgetary shortfalls. The response by the system was, well, to shovel more money into education.

The LSU system seemed most perturbed at the eminently sensible idea of raising admission standards across the board for these kinds of institutions. That would encourage some students to pursue community and technical college degrees which may be more appropriate for their abilities and desires. However, as far as the LSU system goes, this probably would reduce overall enrollment as only one campus (Eunice) is a junior college and while the New Orleans, Shreveport, and Alexandria campuses might pick up students now denied entry into the Baton Rouge campus (which presumably would have the highest standards), that one would lose potentially many students.

Thus, an LSU system representative berated the idea of increasing standards, saying “Let me tell you what raising admissions standards does — all it does is mask the performance of the campus.” This is an egregiously stupid statement on three levels. First, if raising standards, as was done a few years ago (to levels which are, frankly, minimal), caused, as he asserted, barely any improvement in grade point averages (implying that they hadn’t being dragged down by weak students), this is in part because some of the weakest washed out in ways not detectable by GPA as a measurement; for example, students dropping classes in which they were doing poorly (usually permissible well into the term) and never receiving a bad grade.

Second, GPA often does not serve as a good proxy for quality of students in the aggregate at an institution because (this being a dirty secret of academia that I’m sure at some unknown point in the future in some unpredictable way I will be penalized for revealing) the majority of college faculty members teach to their perceived level of their students, rather than setting an ambitious bar and working to help students raise themselves up to that level. Thus, the response to raising admission standards often is to become more demanding as an instructor (because it’s now easier, whereas being demanding with lower-quality students takes more work), when the two should be independent. (Which by itself does not guarantee quality, either – at some institutions, standards are set too low producing grade inflation.)

(As an anecdote, a former dean of my college, who mercifully and blessedly was put out to pasture some years ago, actually told me – in writing – that he was going to punish me related to my instructional level being too demanding, and that I had to teach down to the level of students covered by the admission standards which I said I would refuse to do. Shockingly, his is not an uncommon attitude in academia.)

Third, the remark tried to shift blame onto the concept – raising admission standards – instead of the genuine locus, the institutions themselves. It’s not the imposition of higher standards that has no effect, it’s that the faculty, aided if not encouraged by the institutions, are subverting the effect by manipulating an imperfect measure of that effect, average GPA. As a result, commission members panned severely the remark, one calling it “very offensive.”

Another comment echoed the inanity expressed by the system head in a nongovernmental setting last week, that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students should be converted from a scholarship program to a need-based benefit. This would allow financial sleight-of-hand where the system could argue to keep the reduced amount of TOPS money in higher education and then reap extra funds by collecting tuition from families discriminated against only because of finances – which may lead better students to forgo Louisiana public higher education.

Recognize that these kinds of statements are not made because they will improve higher education in the state, but because they serve the entrenched interests in it that benefit from the current ways of doing things, and also to try to shift the blame elsewhere, specifically claiming the educational establishment in the state, from kindergarten through graduate schooling, isn’t responsible but politicians are because they don’t give it enough money. That’s not going to wash, especially given that, in per capita terms, Louisiana has way too many institutions and spends way too much for the performance delivered.

Again, signs are that the commission will ignore these bleats of turf and job protection and hopefully will recommend measures that will make higher education in the state more efficient, if not better. And then later that day, another commission heard much the same kind of tripe … but that analysis can wait until tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Why not just close LSUS? We have 5four year state universities and 1 four year private along a 90 mile stretch of interstate.

Anonymous said...

No, I'm sure that the brilliant Dr. Sadow will assure you that unlike all the other educational personnel he so blithely considers unnecessary. It is vital that he keep his job.

Anonymous said...

Call me crazy, but perhaps people were just a tad upset that the focus of the Eysink talk was how to fulfill the "workforce needs of Louisiana," meaning the needs that business owners have for ticket-takers, etc. (Their example, not mine.) Perhaps the commission should consider the needs of the large majority of CITIZENS of the state. Obviously there are people who shouldn't be in a four-year universities, but do you really think the "abilities and desires" of many high-school graduates end at being able to take tickets or run a cash register?