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Good Jindal plan for higher education needs refining

Legislation backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal regarding finance and performance of Louisiana’s higher education is welcome and necessary, but questions remain about it that must be answered satisfactorily for it to truly revolutionize the provision of this service.

The bill would allow any institution of higher learning to raise its tuition 10 percent a year until it reached the level of its southern peer average, and after that five percent, with a special higher level set for Louisiana State University Baton Rouge. In exchange for being able to have this power, institutions must raise admission standards and hit graduation targets within the next six years.

This is an excellent answer to a system that has lacked coordination that misallocated resources through a failure to demand enough excellence from students, interjected too many marginal students into the system or into inappropriate places in it, and did not demand enough accountability. Still, for it to work optimally, several aspects must be addressed.

First, rather than educate better at reduced costs because of the efficiencies forced into the system, costs may not go down at all. This is because the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students will continue to pay for all but fees at the highest level of tuition for a state school, LSU’s. For those students that qualify, in taxpayer terms it’s a wash: extra money coming in from higher tuition is picked up by the taxpayer.

Savings might occur because of reallocation of students: some that were starting their careers at LSU may now start at a place like LSU Shreveport because of increased admission standards and thereby make a tuition claim at a lower level to TOPS, and some that had been starting at LSUS now may start at Bossier Parish Community College with its relatively lower tuition level, etc. The allowed increases in tuition may – or may not – be compensated for by this reallocation process.

But also to consider is that TOPS pays at the weighted average of all awards for public schools for the state’s private institutions. This may encourage some students now that entered the public system to choose private schools, since now relatively more of the private school tuition will be covered. Therefore, legislators should tinker with TOPS on this and set the reimbursement to the tuition charged by a state four-year institution that is the lowest – why subsidize maximally private schools when they have their own resources and students interested in attending them have access to scholarships, grants, and loans?

Second, vital to making this work better for less money is something not in the proposed bill but which Jindal recommended legislators address, raising TOPS standards in conjunction with increased admission standards. Right now, it is not a true scholarship program in that to pay tuition at a baccalaureate-granting institution all a student has to do is earn a 20 on the American College Test or the higher of the state average on the test, rounded down (currently 20.1, so they are the same). This is a score well below the national average and, frankly, not very demanding (for example, the highest TOPS award level for a regular Louisiana high school graduate is 27 which is the average score for incoming students at Texas A&M).

This means that TOPS is seen by some as a near-free opportunity to indulge and “find” themselves after high school. That’s understandable, but not something that should be subsidized by taxpayers. If 18-year-olds need to get themselves motivated and figure out what they’re going to do with their lives after they graduate from high school, they need to do it on their own resources. It also means some students are of marginal capabilities to succeed in quality higher education programs and the extra incentive of paying for it on their own may be what’s required for them to concentrate enough to become better students and to succeed (the proposal also addresses increasing need-based financing for students).

With these marginal students either in a sense starting lower at the community college level or delaying entrance if they ever attend college at all, resources will be used more efficiently. Yet this will work only if TOPS standards are raised with admission standards because they two are linked.

Third, while the removal of marginal students and more precise placing of student to school should increase graduation rates significantly, the measurement tools for institutional evaluation must be refined. The metrics to measures these are as yet unclear but must take into account things like, for example, how transfer students are counted in terms of an institution’s overall graduation rate. Without valid and comprehensive measures, this defeats the evaluation.

Finally, the question of system reorganization is left unanswered. Jindal is nudging the transformation of the current system of its four management systems and one supervisory system into two management/supervisory systems of baccalaureate-and-above schools and of all others by budgetary means, but no formal plans exist yet for merging existing systems or for merging individual schools (the state has about 75 of them, most being community and technical colleges).

Oddly, in a seemingly-uninformed fashion some interest groups in the state have argued against this, stating that tasks would become too numerous and confusing for the Jindal idea of two systems to work. In fact, similar models are used by peer states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma whose educational delivery is considered at least as good as Louisiana’s. Efficiency and savings can be realized by this and it also must be pursued.

Satisfactory answers to these things in the legislative process can produce a much superior environment for higher education in the state with costs that promise to be lower. Jindal and his allies on this should be applauded for progress to date, but they need to do more and make sure it all gets done.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not bad, except you are inaccurate about the number of community and technical colleges. There are 17: 7 community colleges, 2 technical community colleges, and 8 regional technical colleges. Sure the regional TCs have a number of locations, but that is no different than many of our universities: NSU- Leesville, NSU Nursing-Shreveport, Tech-Barksdale, all of the LSU-AG extensions, etc.