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Study shows need for shedding schools, TOPS reform

As debate churns over upcoming budget cuts in Louisiana, a new study simultaneously leaves the state’s higher education spending less able to be defended and increases impetus for its reform.

The American Institutes for Research published a look at the amount of money states lost on students who dropped out of college in their first year, combining all kinds of state support. In the period 2003-08, nationally $6.2 billion was spent on dropouts. Distressingly, despite being one of the lowest states in terms of proportion of college students and only about the middle in terms of population, Louisiana ranked 11th highest in amount of money spent on them, making it one of the highest states in per capita terms for money lost on educating dropouts. State money going to public colleges over this period lost was $213.4 million; when including state money and federal money passed through to all institutions of higher education it was $267.3 million.

These data only complement what we know about spending on higher education in Louisiana: too many institutions chase too few students, with relatively low (if any) admission standards sending students into environments in which they won’t succeed, and the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students aggravating the problem by encouraging some people who shouldn’t be at a baccalaureate institution, or even in college at all, to attend courtesy of the taxpayer where the money shelled out for these dropouts gets wasted.
Of course, some reforms have occurred recently to mitigate conditions present during the period of the report, such as accountability standards for schools, a gradual rise in admission standards, and a shift to increasing admissions at two-year and technical facilities. Still, this leaves two major areas of inefficiencies that remain to be addressed.

One cannot be dealt with in the short term, an overbuilt system of higher education. Currently, the problem has been with the amazingly large number of state community and technical colleges, 75 in all. But as students are shifted from state baccalaureate to these institutions, their overbuilt nature becomes less of a problem, even as some technical schools still need to be closed or consolidated.

However, this process only aggravates the overbuilt nature of the baccalaureate-and-up system. As a political matter, the eventual closing and consolidating of these institutions (including shedding most of the charity hospital system) will not occur for years to come and the physical process will take years more to produce savings. In short, as far as a short-term solution, it’s not available.

Yet such a solution does exist with TOPS. Frankly, its current mediocre standards create wasteful taxpayer subsidies and probably are a reason why Louisiana ended up with among the highest per capita wasted expenditures. Elevating those while ratcheting back award amounts may discourage indifferent students from going to college or steer them to technical schools or point weaker students to community or technical colleges instead to baccalaureate institutions.

Naturally, these reforms have been tried, in the form of two bills by state Rep. Joe Harrison in the past legislative session. Just as naturally, politics kicked in and legislators keen on being able to dangle a benefit in front of as many constituents as possible blocked the bills in committee.

Higher education, perhaps less than willingly and prodded by large budget cuts, as a whole in Louisiana has begun to remake itself in a more efficient form. The only way any further significant progress in increased efficiency, and thus savings of taxpayer dollars, is going to occur is by policy-makers acknowledging reality and pursuing these kinds of measures.

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