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LA higher education must plan mergers, closures now

Perhaps advocates of more efficiency in Louisiana higher education should take the recent retreat of Southern University Baton Rouge from raising admissions standards as a slap in the face. Then again, the new statewide 2012 admissions standards alone threaten creating greater system inefficiencies that must be addressed.

SUBR had plans to raise the average American College Test score to 22 by 2012 and increase its minimum grade point average in high school coursework from 2.0/4.0 to 2.5. This would have been on top the elevated state requirements that essentially changed the current standards that, relative to SUBR, mean students will have to have at least a 2.0 (they don’t have to now), that this be on core courses, and creates a minimum ACT subscore of 18 on English and 19 on math (by 2014 with no minimum required now). Instead, SUBR has decided to indefinitely postpone implementation of this.

Little wonder, since even the incoming state standards promise to trigger an alarming drop in enrollment when they go into effect. While the voluminous reporting of Louisiana higher education includes many things, one thing not regularly reported is average ACT scores for schools. But percentage of students on the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students gives a decent proxy of how many students may be denied admittance by 2014, as one of its requirements is a minimum ACT of 20 and core GPA of 2.5. This information also is not made directly available by the Board of Regents but can be found in their TOPS reports.

Using this data shows the new standards will reduce significantly SUBR enrollment. For the latest cohort on which there is data (new college students entering Fall, 2007 semester), less than 16 percent of SUBR students qualified for TOPS. While the new admissions requirements mandate a 20 on the ACT overall, this can be substituted for a 2.0 core GPA, so that doesn’t mean the new standards will decimate SUBR enrollment.

But it is quite a step up given the current almost non-standards, which allow admittance even if a student can’t meet either requirement as long as he graduated in the top half of his high school class. That loophole disappears, and given that the latest average ACT score made available for SUBR (from 2000 contained in the Noel-Levitz Report) entering students was a 16.5, it’s not unreasonable to think that SUBR could lose half of its enrollment of this cohort. The higher standards now shelved, which exceed those of the minimum TOPS award, would have excluded likely 90 percent of the current student body.

Of course, transfer students from community colleges, which will continue to have the almost non-existent standard for admission of graduating from any high school or its equivalent, can still to come to SUBR as long as they meet the very minimal standards of 18 hours completed with at least a 2.0. And “adult” students, defined as 21 or older not having taken college coursework in many cases even years from now only have to meet the barely-there standards in place when they graduated from high school, so plenty of loopholes still exist that will keep SUBR, and other schools like it in terms of student profiles (Grambling State University, with only 2.6 percent on TOPS, and Southern University New Orleans, with 0.7 percent) with students.

Yet at levels significantly below today’s, for the fact is their proportions of first-time, full-time freshmen entering the fall semesters will go down considerably and adult and transfer students will not make that up, leading to further enrollment declines (SUBR’s has fallen 23 percent in the past decade), a dynamic that will aggravate further the efficiency of Louisiana higher education delivery. While many of these students will head to community colleges where instruction can be accomplished more cheaply, this will hollow out these baccalaureate institutions, creating slack personnel and facility resources and increasing per unit costs that probably will exceed any savings.

The excellent ideas behind increasing admissions standards are to enable more rigorous instruction and not to waste resources on unprepared students, creating more capable graduates at reduced cost. However, costs will not be lower, and perhaps even higher, unless higher education reallocates resources away from places where they no longer are needed to other higher priority areas. If this means merging or closing campuses and/or systems, planning to accomplish this needs to start now.

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