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Jindal pleased, establishment not, by sensible report

(This one is for you, Jimmy and Randy Steele)

Louisiana’s Postsecondary Education Review Commission wrapping up its formal work drew some resistance to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s quest to reform public higher education. But that is to be expected from a hidebound regime, and in its reaction to the recommendations showed it is becoming more alarmed at how inevitable and beneficial reform is going to impact traditional and present arrangements.

PERC got most of it right: consolidating higher education boards will save money and clarify mission and implementation (including program duplication issues); increased institutional control over tuition rates will improve alignment of resources to institution; stressing progress towards graduation over enrollment will mean less wasted effort (and tax dollars) on education that doesn’t much get used or makes an no real impact on low achieving/unmotivated students; and raising admissions standards at all baccalaureate institutions will reduce tax dollars inefficiently used on students not capable or ready to attend such universities.

It did miss on a couple of areas. It did not recommend any specific campus mergers or closings, although that was perhaps the most controversial item of discussion and one maybe that was felt not achievable at this time given the constellation of political forces. It merely asked that the idea be studied. Any definitive action may have to wait a few years.

But the other neglected item was important and entirely possible, and would have complemented neatly with the emphasis on increased output and savings: increasing standards for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students awards that would move them from being a lightly-earned entitlement to a real scholarship program. As currently constituted, it contributes to lower completion rates because with such low requirements it encourages indifferent students to attempt college on taxpayer dollars where many they find they either do not have the intellect and/or drive to succeed. While those who do not continue in good standing to get degrees do have to pay back funds, since tuition scholarship money pays for only about half of all costs, taxpayers get hit for the remainder.

The Commission also disregarded Jindal’s request to come up with a specific amount of savings. Granted, it was a tough request because taking actions such as these presents difficulty in their quantifying (outside of the one paying baccalaureate-and-above institutions the same per freshman and sophomore level class as community colleges, a change with mixed blessings, pegged at $40 million savings). Jindal wanted to see a figure of $146 million for next year; likely that won’t be achieved for then.

Implementation also will require changes in others areas outside of higher education – and possibly in ways also comporting to Jindal’s agenda. For example, having just two governing boards would throw into one the current governance of the charity hospital system – which may provide impetus to dismantle the system which Jindal has shown signs of favoring. Also, it supports his idea of revamping the state’s fiscal structure so that budget deficits are not unduly borne by higher education.

Entrenched interests were not amused by this report. Louisiana State University System President John Lombardi found time to get on the bad side of both PERC (constituted by the Legislature) and the governor regarding it. Lombardi, who has perhaps the most to lose personally by implementation of the recommendations because the resources he controls and power he can flex will diminish on the small chance he won’t have his job eliminated, implied the recommendations were “without careful, fact-based analysis and without a careful consideration of unintended consequences” that would require review.

Such a statement becomes comical when realizing that several members of PERC hold distinguished positions within the higher education community and probably have less parochial interests and more comprehensive experiences in it than does Lombardi. It seems unlikely these individuals would not make such suggestions without a great deal of thought and wisdom. (Indeed, it appears that it was the Commission’s political appointees that toned down the more challenging aspects of the recommendations.) Yet, the counteroffensive already has begun such as the LSU System’s pushing an alternative method of comparing performance.

This was the nexus of the dispute Lombardi publicly had with Jindal on a goal identified by PERC’s report, the raising of graduation rates. Jindal has said improving these should be linked with tuition increases, the comparison task of which Lombardi called “dumb.” He said rewards should be based upon the kinds of students at the institutions, for which the LSU System proposed a different metric instead of the 75/60/50 percent graduation rates in six years argued by PERC: proportion of four-year degrees awarded from the entire student population, with the ideal at a baccalaureate institution would be 25 percent (a quarter of the total student population graduating every year).

Use of this statistic makes many Louisiana universities look good, with some rates around 20 percent – arguing not much improvement has to be made. However, this statistic is somewhat misleading because is does not follow cohorts – instead of following the same group for six years, it instead looks at different student populations each year which internally can change significantly particularly through dropouts. Jindal and PERC want the emphasis to be on the proportion of students who get a degree in a timely fashion, while the statistic floated by the LSU system concentrates on producing degrees regardless of the time involved and the exit of non-completers. Jindal argues that PERC’s different recommendations of proportions for graduation rates for different kinds of institutions reflected the realities that different kinds of schools faced.

Given the approving noises coming out of both legislative leaders and the Capitol’s fourth floor, much, perhaps all of this, is going to go through sooner or later. It’s a desirable political fact, one that the state’s higher educational establishment will do itself a favor on by focusing its efforts on adjusting to this new reality.


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James S said...

Lombardi becomes more aggravating by the day. He disparages TOPS at every opportunity while he receives a princely salary and benefits.

Clearly his personal interests (money)and power are all he cares about-give him the boot!