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Wise higher ed suggestions need serious consideration

Sensible ideas continue to come from Louisiana’s Postsecondary Education Review Commission regarding realigning resources, but especially in this policy area real progressive change only will occur with proper implementation.

The latest recommendations, joining others some of which can be implemented by the state’ Board of Regents but most of which only can be dealt with by the Legislature, would result in the discontinuation of some academic programs, perhaps especially in graduate studies, with an emphasis on completion rates, quality, and workforce needs to sort those that continue from those that shouldn’t. In addition, it recommended equal funding per faculty member for associates degree programs (those offered at baccalaureate universities typically are higher because of higher faculty salaries) and the elimination of “excess” hours in programs (currently defined as any baccalaureate program offering more than 120 hours except where accreditation requires more).

These recommendations remain consistent with previous ones suggested if not adopted. For example, PERC has asked for higher admission standards and consolidation of schools in some instances. That was brought up again particularly in reference to Southern University – New Orleans which has averaged about 10 percent completers (finishing a degree in six years) over the past couple of years. Adding the reduction of programs could strip a school like SUNO to the point where it has no real reason to exist as a separate institution.

This may be the only way to move the state towards consolidations and even closure or downgrading of campuses from four-year to two-year, as politics has played a major role in keeping this from happening. While the Southern University System may complain that the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have had lingering effects on its ability to deliver education, that calamity’s intervention made for the ideal opportunity to put consolidation into effect. With the University of New Orleans also hurting from that disaster (as one of its coping moves, looking to downgrade significantly its athletics programs despite their history of reasonable success), it would have made perfect sense long ago to combine forces by folding the small SUNO into the larger UNO and divest of the SUNO infrastructure.

However, as a commission member pointed out, the state cannot arbitrarily lop off any low completer program or consolidate it elsewhere. One example from my past: years ago, Louisiana State University Shreveport offered a Bachelors of Arts in Social Sciences – Public Administration. From anywhere from five to 10 students were enrolled in it at any time. It was certainly needed – there are thousands of government employees (not counting teachers and university professors) in the Shreveport metropolitan area in managerial positions – but it received little support in terms of connecting it to government (although at the time LSUS spent almost nothing on these kinds of efforts, so it wasn’t being discriminated against). But it cost nothing to have. Its major coursework was taught by faculty members whose courses were used in other majors as well, and the only extra and modest administrative demands it made were added to the duties of one faculty member (me).

Eventually, it was discontinued as part of a round a dozen years ago ridding low completer programs. However, not a single cent was saved by doing so, and under different circumstances it would have had great potential. It is considerations such as these that will have to be weighed by any round (yet again) of low completer removals.

One option not present in the past, also suggested by a commission member, is the use of online delivery as a method of consolidation. For example, Illinois has a quasi-separate administrative unit within the University of Illinois system called the Illinois Virtual Campus which essentially allows any student at any state public university to take a course online offered at any state public university and have it count as potentially fulfilling a degree requirement at their home school. This model could be adapted to Louisiana where instruction of duplicative specialty programs could housed in one institution administratively and then delivered through distance means.

Further, increased use of online instructional resources can create specialization and efficiency. As an example, it is now possible at LSUS to fulfill all major area requirements for a B.A. in Social Sciences – Political Science through online coursework, and the same holds true for a Bachelors of General Studies, except for the capstone course, if the area of concentration chosen is in political science. This presently can attract students who complete associates degrees at community colleges across the state, who then virtually without leaving their areas can transfer and complete a four-year degree.

Yet this can be expanded in the context of realigning resources. As an example, smaller schools who either do not offer political science beyond the introductory level or general studies as a major could import LSUS political science courses, or those schools if they have these majors if low completer in nature could shed them from being taught on their campuses yet their students still could complete those degrees with use of the imported courses. Obviously this would create controversy because it could mean certain faculty members in certain disciplines at certain schools would be made redundant, but if the state is serious about efficiency, it’s going to be headed in that direction. (And the transformation would take some time – if tenured, faculty members essentially would have to leave their jobs before such realignment could happen in a cost effective way.)

To date, even as PERC is asked to come up with $146 million in savings prior to the end of February, most of the real savings are long-term in nature such as with the above. Regardless of these not being short-term items, ideas such as these promise substantial savings through more efficient alignment of resources, and PERC wisely needs to keep heading and recommending in this direction. Then it will be up to the Regents and Legislature to put aside politics to adopt them and into implement them with care.

1 comment:

James S said...

SUNO was useless long before Katrina was spawned...