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More stringent TOPS best idea yet from higher education

Comments made by Louisiana State University Agricultural and Mechanical University (that is, the Baton Rouge-based campus) Chancellor Michael Martin should provoke a lot of interest not only because of their sensibility in dealing with Louisiana’s looming budget crisis, but also as they open an interesting window into some of the internal politics going on with how the higher education approaches dealing with the impending fiscal difficulties of the state.

Martin, speaking at a university forum, addressed LSU’s potential responses to anticipated, potentially large, cuts coming his school’s way. Because of a revenue-generation decline and inability to curb state spending, given the constitutional and legal fiscal status of the budgeting process, in dollar terms higher education is likely to face the second-largest cut absolutely, but the highest in relative terms, in next year’s state budget.

The best thing to do about this would be to review the nearly 350 dedicated funds in state government that are constitutionally or legally prevented from being cut more than a pittance without extraordinarily maneuvers, whose dedications may bear little resemblance to actual objective needs for state spending, and make appropriate changes to reflect genuine priorities. But the Legislature whiffed on a procedure to do just this earlier this year.

It also has choked on giving more authority to universities to raise their tuition levels, although in recent years a modified proposal passed to allow school to make a series of periodic, small hikes on their own. Otherwise, any such increases ridiculously must receive two-thirds support in the Legislature. This hangover from the state’s populist past needlessly interferes with market forces, not trusting that the market will create a situation that allows universities to fund themselves at a level they feel adequate given the amount of students they would be able to attract at that level of tuition.

Recently, the justification accompanying this continued ability for the Legislature to interfere in tuition rates acquired new life through the creation of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which awards scholarships worth the highest tuition amount (LSU’s, in essence) to (mostly) Louisiana high school graduates that achieve certain benchmarks. It has been argued that, because the TOPS amount of money spent is tied into tuition, that the Legislature should have some fairly stringent control over tuition.

Martin’s comments were interesting here, because he argued the standards to qualify for TOPS, achieving certain scores on a standardized test and passing a core curriculum in high school, should be increased. Refreshingly recognizing that this is a scholarship program which implies academic excellence, this view runs counter to the current conceptualization of it as, frankly, a semi-entitlement program since, to be honest, its standards are so low. Presently, for the in-state graduate, on the American College Test only a score of 20 is necessary, well below the national average. Further, only minimal academic performance (such as a low 2.3 for the first 48 hours, 2.5 Grade Point Average – B-/C+ – from there) is required to maintain the typical award at a four-year university.

When mediocrity is being rewarded, it’s hard to argue that excellence is being encouraged. Raising standards for the program would encourage improved high school performance – sending a ripple effect throughout all of secondary and elementary education – not just better performance once in college and on TOPS. It also would discourage those not that serious about college from wasting their time and taxpayer dollars; some students lacking direction in life currently go to college because TOPS will pay for them to drift there and subsequently flunk out.

Of course, with fewer students qualifying, the state would spend less than the $130 million or so currently budgeted to TOPS, and less demand would wash over Louisiana public institutions – already overfunded and maldistributed in some ways – but the payoff might be taking the tens of millions of dollars saved and putting it back into the universities. And it’s not really that courageous of a statement by Martin, in the sense that LSU already has admission standards for incoming freshmen at an undemanding but higher level than the basic TOPS award, so it would lose few students from an increase up to its admissions levels.

However, most interestingly, Martin’s suggestion not only runs counter to the inane opinion of his boss, LSU System President John Lombardi, that TOPS become a need-based program, but also implicitly bucked the LSU System position that admission standards should not be raised. Elevating TOPS requirements would have the same effect as a rise in admissions standards across the higher education system, producing fewer enrollees because some no longer would qualify. That Martin publicly contradicts Lombardi and gets away with it can mean just one of two things, that Lombardi is on slippery ground with his employers, the LSU Board of Supervisors, or the System recognizes that Lombardi’s position and perhaps other controversial statements of his regarding the funding of higher education have become non-starters so Martin’s now becomes a fallback position.

The latter seems to be the case as state government appears to be approaching a consensus on raising admissions standards at schools that offer degrees beyond the associates’. Regardless of the motive, Martin’s suggestion is the best heard from higher education leadership to date, and coupled with a rise in admission standards and the consolidation leading to cost-saving efficiency of the several governance boards in Louisiana higher education are requisite first steps to creating more efficient higher education delivery in the state, especially vital to countering the pernicious effects of future budgetary woes.

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