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Study shows how to remove LA higher education waste

The mix of some good news but more bad news regarding Louisiana’s higher education contained in New Orleans’ Pelican Institute for Public Policy report on it reveals some solid policy recommendations for system reform.

The key result noted in “Louisiana: Public Institutions” is admissions standards for the state’s baccalaureate-and-above institutions are too low. They contribute to sparse completion rates on first-first, full-time, freshmen entering in the fall semester (FFFF) six-year graduation rates – in the state, on average only 39 percent do so compared to the national average of 54 percent. This creates a cohort of around 30 percent enrolled in state institutions few members of which are likely to attain a baccalaureate degree and essentially wastes university resources – much of which are taxpayer-funded. The study pegs this number at $440 million a year, or a third of the entire recent budget of higher education.

There is some good news in that even as the FFFF six-year rate in Louisiana is 15 points below the national average, degree completion remains relatively good at 20 percent, above the national average. This means of those enrolled at a given time, 20 percent per year complete a degree. This indicates that a number of those who start out at a public institution are not dropping out but instead are transferring elsewhere in the system to finish the degree and shows the performance of some institutions (such as mine, Louisiana State University Shreveport) that rank low on the FFFF six-year rate rank among the highest in completer percentage of total enrollment. Still, it also means there is too much inefficient churn in the process of transferring to complete, meaning likely failed courses at one institution while at the other(s) additional courses may have to be taken in order to meet different requirements.

Most disturbing is that an estimated 22 percent of all entering students scored no better than a 19 on the American College Test, well below the national average of 21 for all high school seniors taking the exam. Further, it would appear that of enrolled freshmen in baccalaureate-and-above institutions, 29 percent come from the bottom half of their high school classes in terms of this score. Overlapping members of these groups, the study maintains, are poor risks to complete.

Fortunately, something already is being done to deal with that 29 percent, in that more rigorous admissions standards will be implemented in Louisiana higher education. Quite frankly, under the old standards, you have to do little more than be able to fog a mirror with your breath to get into many schools in the state – for example, as long as you graduated in the top half of your high school class, even if a large majority of its students on their end-of-course exams did not score even adequately, you are in regardless of ACT score or high school grade point average.

The bad news, however, is that these standards won’t begin until 2012 and won’t be fully implemented until 2014. Also, they really remain too low, with a 20 on the ACT still qualifying not only for admission at several institutions, but also to get a Taylor Opportunity Program for Students award that will pay for tuition. Admissions exceptions also will continue even if at lower proportions (the report recommends getting rid of these entirely). Raising TOPS standards to make this less of an entitlement and more of a scholarship will dissuade some marginal students from entering the baccalaureate system who are at much higher risk of not graduating while encouraging others to prepare more diligently to increase their chances of success, as well as save taxpayer dollars that now number about $135 million annually going to fund TOPS.

Another recommendation in the report relates to this, that raising of standards would direct more marginal students into the technical and community college system (a less-expensive TOPS award there requires only a 17 on the ACT) where they would be more likely to succeed and where taxpayer funds more efficiently would be spent (given that these institutions are, the report terms, “no-frills”). The Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration already calculates redirection would save taxpayers $91 million annually. This also would have the salutary result of reducing the overbuilt nature of the technical college system with its two dozen campuses.

It may also argue for adding to the 10 community colleges by downgrading to community colleges some of the four-year campuses that are near but outside of major metropolitan areas. That also becomes an necessary implication if admissions standards are increased at the latter, for there will be too many faculty for too few students, creating the political question of whether to lop off some faculty members at all institutions, leaving programs as a whole of reduced capacity with increased relative overhead which would be the path of least resistance for elected officials, but be much less efficient than getting rid of whole degree programs and the administrative overhead that goes with them at a few institutions. A hybrid approach could allow some of the non-metropolitan four-year institutions that should concentrate on two-year students to keep some baccalaureate programs in specialized areas of excellence, but to stop awarding baccalaureate degrees in more general areas.

Again, it would take political will to raise admission standards further, even more to raise TOPS qualifications, and the most of all to reassign and consolidate campuses. Whether the needed degree of it exists is in serious question. But this report valuably informs about the high cost of failure to exert it.

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