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Analysis shows weakness of merger opponents' claims

As the two bills to merge Southern University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans begin wending their ways through the legislative process, it’s helpful to recognize the insufficiency of contentions made of those who oppose them.

These bills, HB 537 by House Speaker Jim Tucker and SB 183 by state Sen. Conrad Appel, in many respects parallel recommendations made by a special committee hired by the Board of Regents to study the matter by request of Gov. Bobby Jindal. But they do vary crucially in that they would dissolve both organizations and merge them into one, as opposed to the board’s recommendation of separate units sharing infrastructure and some tasks. This has brought up one genuine issue, about whether the new entity would qualify as a Historically Black College and University, making it eligible for federal funding in the form of grants to support financial management, physical plant renovations and improvements, endowment building infrastructure, and academic resources.

State higher education officials disagree on that status (the definition of one from the Higher Education Act of 1965 being “any … whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered”). And whether the federal dollars truly support the mission of providing quality education to students is debatable (such as with this example). But whether a combined school is one it might be a moot point according to the arguments of supporters of the bill.

They contend that, regardless of the source of money, if not used efficiently it won’t be effective to the educational mission. This situation, if demonstrated at SUNO, contradicts the two related arguments of bill opponents, who assert SUNO does well with what it has but could do better given more support, and it needs time to realize this. However, a review of the data casts much doubt on these bill opponents’ assertions.

SUNO, as the second-smallest smallest four-year public school in the state (and offering masters degrees on top of that), compared to its nearest-sized peers receives higher state support. In 2009 ( from IPEDS data), the average state subsidy per full-time equivalent student (total enrollment 3,061) was $6,494, compared to Louisiana State University Shreveport’s (total enrollment 4,667) $5,617 and Louisiana State University Alexandria’s (total enrollment 2,675) $6,484.

Backers of a continued independent SUNO argue that it needs its independence to continue its special mission of educating a student population historically disadvantaged. Yet it spends only $3,506 on instruction and $1,271 on student support services per FTE student, or 29.17 percent of all its spending. The comparable figures at LSUS are $4,691 and $617 or 48.09 percent, and at LSUA $5,891 and $1,094 or 50.27 percent. This is despite the fact that the average full-time (none month) salary of faculty members at SUNO is $51,240, while at LSUS it is $53,665 and at LSUA (which offers nothing beyond baccalaureate degrees) $48,409. Why are non-student-related costs so much higher at SUNO?

SUNO’s outputs as well as its inputs also make questionable whether it does what it needs to for provision of education. Of its undergraduates, 228 of its 2,590 students received a baccalaureate degree or 8.8 percent, and 148 of 551 graduate students did the same or 26.9 percent. Comparatively, at LSUS the figures were, respectively, 529 or 4,320 or 12.2 percent and 100 and 547 or 18.3 percent, and at LSUA (undergraduate programs only) 166 of 2,675 or 6.2 percent. However, including SUNO’s and LSUA’s associate degrees awarded, 11 and 151, respectively, the rates rise to 9.2 and 11.9 percent, respectively.

(For comparison sake, UNO’s state subsidy was the state’s highest at $7,549 with a total enrollment of 11,724, it spent $8,978 on instruction and $935 on services or 55.87 percent, and its average salary, keeping in mind it awards doctorates and is considered a research institution, is $65,974. Its degree completion percentages are 1,365 bachelors of 8,746 total or 15.6 percent and 607 of 2,978 or 20.4 percent, and its undergraduate graduation rate is 21 percent.)

As SUNO only graduates 8 percent of its first-time, full-time freshmen entering in the fall semester within 150 percent of degree-earning time (2003 cohorts for bachelors degrees, 2006 for associates) while LSUS manages 20 percent and LSUA 12 percent, this has led supporters of its continued independence to claim it compares well when looking at how many of its transfer students eventually get degrees. But the degree completion percentages show it lags its peer institutions even there. And, this occurs with it getting more state support even though it spends far less of all revenues both in absolute and relative terms on activities related to students.

Perhaps recognition of these statistics is what elicits moonbattery from state Sen. Karen Peterson in remarking the bill comprised a “selective attempt to reduce the number of African American students” earning college degrees, said by her constituting an “intentional act.” Which begs the question of whether Peterson even realizes how the logic of her statement detracts from any rational argument against a merger.

Note the assumption that Peterson makes here – that without SUNO as a freestanding institution, fewer blacks will earn degrees. In fact, SUNO does more poorly at graduating blacks than LSUS; at SUNO the graduation rate for blacks is 8 percent and 228 of 2,509 or 9.1 percent of all blacks received an undergraduate degree in 2009, while at LSUS the rate is 11 percent and 90 of 907 or 9.9 percent graduated. It does better than LSUA where the rate is 5 percent and 42 of 514 or 8.2 percent graduated, but its potential partner UNO has a rate of 13 percent and 235 of 1952 or 12.0 percent graduated. If you want to increase the chances of a black student earning a degree, it would seem that UNO would be a better bet than SUNO, or in the sense of peer institutions, LSUS would do a better job.

But Peterson is interested in the “number” – the sheer bulk size of a graduating cohort. She claims without SUNO, there will be fewer blacks in absolute terms graduating. However, if it is united with UNO, which does a better relative job of producing black graduates, assuming the same number of black students who would have gone to a separate SUNO go there, wouldn’t that produce more black graduates, a higher absolute number? So the only way Peterson’s statement could be true is if that assumption is not met, in that fewer black students pursue baccalaureate degrees or can complete them in a combined school because SUNO’s abysmally low current admission standards and evidence of undemanding, unchallenging instruction allows for unready students to attend and a small proportion of all students to graduate but with devalued degrees – as noted previously, how could it be any different when the average American College Test score of entering students at SUNO is 15.5, the bottom 15th percentile of all takers of it regardless of whether they even attend any level of college?

By this statement, Peterson shows she doesn’t care about efficiency in using taxpayer dollars, the quality of higher education being delivered, or about the lives of those students seeking such education. She just wants a political talking point at the expense of taxpayers and underserved students in college by wishing to perpetuate the current system. And her argument illustrates perfectly the mindset what the bills seek to move away from – acceptance for political reasons of an environment where too little efficient use of funds delivered in a substandard way costing both taxpayers and students.

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