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Merger alternative risks making bad situation worse

As opponents of improved higher education breathe a sigh of relief over the shift in strategy concerning Southern University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans, that they scored a victory does not diminish the upheaval facing the entire system in the state and their culpability in potentially making matters worse..

The eighth-of-a-loaf denouement now pursued by merger backers of simply shifting UNO into the University of Louisiana system and forging agreements between UNO and SUNO for resource-sharing has drawn sharply diverging views on the potential outcome. Some see this as a destructive umbilical cord that will sap UNO to keep SUNO performing at its abysmally low level. Others think, in a neo-functionalist way, that this will create tighter binds between the two that will dissolve SUNO resistance and facilitate a merger in just a few years, especially when SUNO faces reality.

And that reality is, pending the introduction of higher admission standards through 2012-14, that almost all freshmen who now qualified for admittance to and attend SUNO would be unable to do so.
Being that the average American College Test score of its students is 15.5 – not much above what one would score simply guessing at its multiple-choice questions – so far below the national average that 85 percent of national test-takers score above SUNO’s typical student, that only about one-fifth would qualify in the initial phase. This rate will drop more when minimum English and mathematics ACT scores become required by 2014 and adult students 25 or older cannot need any remedial coursework.

This means SUNO will shrink dramatically in size and hardly any “traditional” baccalaureate students will attend it – those who enter it right out of high school and leave four years later with a degree. Few younger than 25 will start their academic careers there, most will have transferred there from a community college, and almost all will be at least 25 years old.

But the worst news of all is that many let in will not successfully complete degrees, if national statistics bear out. ACT numbers indicate statewide that a shockingly-high proportion of high school graduates who took the ACT (and this typically is only around half of all high school seniors) in Louisiana, over 70 percent, did not meet three of four benchmarks on ACT subject area tests asserted to indicate high probability of success. By the numbers, almost no SUNO entering freshmen make those marks.

Another presumed indicator, qualification for Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars awards, which requires lower ACT scores than the ACT benchmarks, also reflects poorly on SUNO’s current status. Of the last six-year cohort entering college for which statistics exist, fall of 2003, of the 387 full-time freshmen entering SUNO, exactly one qualified for TOPS – and that student no longer was enrolled at SUNO after the sophomore year. In fact, statewide less than 50 percent of TOPS recipients remained at the school in which they started.

Generally, these data have three implications. First, elementary and secondary education institutions in Louisiana do an inferior job in preparing sufficient proportions of students to pursue a baccalaureate degree right out of high school. Second, especially until this changes, more students desiring higher education must be routed into community colleges with and increased emphasis there placed upon remedial education and preparing students to tackle the greater demands, for those who wish to transfer in pursuit of them, of baccalaureate degrees. Third, this mandates a shift in resources away from institutions granting baccalaureate-and-above degrees to community colleges, if not the outright merging and closing of such institutions.

Which is why opposition to the merger of SUNO with UNO, and integration with Delgado Community College, can only be understood by policymakers irresponsibly putting alternative constituencies ahead of the need to educate adequate and efficiently college students. And explains that, of the two scenarios advanced above, the legislation now moving on the matter better hope to pave the way for a subsuming of SUNO into some other form rather than making an inefficient use of higher education resources, paid for by both federal and state taxpayers and students, even worse than at present.

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