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LA policy-makers need guts to pursue college reform

Perhaps a new phase has been entered into regarding the way Louisiana conceptualizes the delivery of higher education, one that has been long coming and vitally overdue that is going to need cooperation and courage of both elected officials and academicians to manifest in a way that strengthens that delivery.

Yesterday, legislators on the House Appropriations Committee bluntly told academic leaders that, given the disappearance of nearly $300 million in federal spending bill money starting the beginning of fiscal year 2011-12, substantial changes had to be forthcoming in higher education. This does not even include further monies that could go away because of state revenue-raising difficulties.

By the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year, maybe the latter will be under control. A myriad of bills/proposed constitutional amendments ready for this upcoming legislative session could solidify funding mechanisms for higher education that, under the present regime, has suffered $250 million or so in cuts over the past 15 months. Even more immediate problems might become resolved by fortune or perhaps a little assistance from the Budget Stabilization Fund. Still, these do nothing to offset that federal dollar loss.

One of the unfortunate things about academia – take it from an insider who has spent now almost a quarter century as an employee in it – is that it can be rather tone deaf when it comes to understanding its relationship to the real world (with one of these inabilities to hear being that it is, in fact, a world very distinct and divorced from what goes on outside of it that in many ways bears little resemblance to the outside). In some academicians, it leads to an unfortunate attitude marked by being dismissive about those outside it trying to set parameters for its operation, a haughtiness that maintains that elected officials are (I hear from time to time this word bandied about by those in higher education) “idiots,” and an insistence that things must be done a certain way without understanding the privileges afforded in their jobs that most in the real world lack.

To some degree, the prevalence of this attitude within Louisiana higher education has been part of the problem. At the same time, having been an observer of Louisiana politics for this quarter century and witnessing what I have, it’s hard to argue against the view that politicians do some extraordinarily dumb things in their policy-making. So, when legislators argue that higher education is not doing necessary things to change, that’s not really accurate. Over the past year, individual campuses have been making some significant changes to improve efficiency.

But at the same time, our leaders in higher education to date have seemed unwilling to face certain facts which are nothing new to readers of this space, that call for action in the face of certain questions:

  • Why, in per capita dollar terms, is Louisiana in the top ten among states in spending on higher education, yet has some of the lowest graduation rates and, frankly, in the aggregate, lower quality education?
  • Why does Louisiana rank in the top ten states in terms of number of institutions (75) yet is about midway both in terms of college-age population and total population (which leads to one of the lowest ratios of people-to-institutions)?
  • Why should tuition rates increase dramatically when Louisiana already is in the upper two-thirds of rates being charged?

Bluntly, resources going into higher education in Louisiana are not being used nearly as efficiently as they should be, and higher education bears a good chunk of the blame for that. Elected officials do, too – after all, for example, who let higher education create so many campuses – but when these officials, as they did yesterday, sit there and tell academic leaders there had better be so significant changes forthcoming, to have those leaders whine (with, no doubt, a number of their employees throughout their systems nodding their heads in agreement) about how so many cuts have occurred and higher education has done so much to accommodate them, this signals that these people need to wake up, smell the coffee, see reality for what it is, and get with the program.

And what is the program? While to date mostly changes have occurred at the campus level and some still need to happen, many specific ones remain:

1. Simply, there are too many institutions at both the baccalaureate and above and below levels. There need to be mergers of four-year-and-above campuses, maybe turning some baccalaureate institutions into two-year schools, and a strategic plan to whittle down the number of technical schools yet which also will make sure areas of growing population and demand see increases in resources.

2. Much of the problem with low graduation rates comes from misallocation of resources to an appropriate level of student instruction. Too many students who start out at a baccalaureate-and-above institution need to be eased into their courses of study through going to community colleges first. A review of admissions standards of these schools across the state shows many are virtually open admissions universities. For example, at my institution all you have to do is be 25 or older and have a high school diploma or equivalency and you’re in. And even for those younger, the standards are minimal. There needs to be a significant increase in admissions standards across all of these kinds of universities to make sure only students that are ready for the rigor end up at them. For those who aren’t, open admissions policies at community colleges whose college missions are geared specifically to teaching the less-prepared can accommodate them to get them up to speed for transfer to finish their four-year degrees.

3. Also part of this problem is that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships aren’t “scholarships” in the classic sense because they demand little demonstrated achievement to have a high school graduate be awarded one. Their presence encourages unmotivated students to go to college whereby they flunk out or leave school wasting taxpayer resources both in funding TOPS and in resources used in the universities. Raising standards here as well would ensure those not ready to commit themselves to advanced education don’t cause this problem, as well as would motivate more achievement in high school in order to earn these and thus better prepare for the rigors of college, and for those who don’t succeed would give them extra motivation to complete school since they will be using their own resources. It’s a waste to allow some teenagers to “find themselves” on the public’s back.

4. Having the charity hospital system as part of its mission distracts and saps resources from the Louisiana State University System. The system wants to hang onto these facilities for dear life because they bring more power, prestige, and resources into the system, but the outmoded regime should have been folded up long ago and the system should never have been the one to administer them. With the ruinous health care law newly enacted that will raise premiums and costs and lower the quality of care, it has no place for this kind of regime so this should be the impetus to dismantle the system over the next few years, leaving perhaps only the New Orleans (which should be pared down given the new reality) and Shreveport hospitals open and under LSU management for purposes of medical education.

5. Faculty teaching loads must be reviewed with changes made to increase some. Many faculty members in the state at the baccalaureate level teach as many as four or even five courses a semester (eight to ten a year) But some who don’t otherwise have additional departmental administrative duties teach far fewer. This is justified on the basis that they are conducting research or running some kind of special program. But what must be emphasized particularly in times of severe budgetary stress is all institutions in the state are first and foremost there for instruction and research secondarily. Thus, downloads of teaching loads not for departmental administrative reasons should be curtailed at least partially, with the goal of having every undergraduate instructor teaching at least three courses a semester, and every instructor who teaches only graduate/professional students teach at least two courses a semester (or maybe something like five a year if doing both), in order to make resources go further.

6. Across the higher education landscape a number of programs, even a few entire departments, end up adding little meaningful substance to the overall academic experience or environment. Some exist as little more than vanity projects tailored to the tastes of a handful or even of a single faculty member. These need to be reviewed with an eye towards their consolidation into other units or in reshaping them in a way that makes a larger contribution to the basic teaching mission of universities, to produce better utilization of resources.

7. Bureaucratic reforms should not be confined just to the parts of government that are mainly stocked with members of the classified civil service. Almost half of state employees work in higher education and of them the majority are unclassified, almost all faculty members. Review of organizational structures needs accomplishing along the lines of what other agencies in Louisiana currently are pursuing – eliminating middle and upper management posts, both on the academic and administrative sides. Especially this needs to be done at the system level with the combining of the five separate boards that provide some form of governance into no more than two. If states similar to Louisiana can run higher education that way, there’s no reason this one couldn’t do so also.

Notable among these are that only some can be implemented at the campus level or below. Indeed, the majority of increased efficiency would be realized through actions at the highest administrative levels of higher education, some of it accomplishable only by policy made in tandem with elected officials. This involves hard political choices that the politicians inside and outside of academia often seem reluctant to make. For example, when a state legislator claims closing and merging campuses won’t bring cost savings in the near term, it’s ridiculous to use that as an excuse not to start the process. Just because savings and better allocation of them may take awhile to come doesn’t mean the overall net benefits in the future are not there. Even if delayed, the state still reaps lasting rewards.

Following these reforms will take courage, yet policy-makers inside and outside of academia should not be so spineless as to let that deter them from doing so. My expressing these sentiments, given my place in academia, is not going to win me many friends in my profession and I would not be acknowledging reality if I ignored the fact that comments such as these and about some other matters, which are mine alone, that have appeared under my byline have not helped my academic career. But they are correct and necessary to be heard, and if I can write about them, then surely the highest-ranked academic administrators and state appointed and elected officials can have enough guts to pursue them.

1 comment:

James S said...

If elected officials had any guts at all SUNO would never have reopened. Not expecting to see many flashes of courage in the upcoming sesson...