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Panel product may provide impetus for needed reform

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and forces sympathetic to beneficial change in Louisiana’s higher education may be getting the upper hand despite previous defeats, as the results coming from a panel dedicated to reviewing higher education policy indicate.

Last year, a bold higher education reform package was proposed by Go. Bobby Jindal, but his legislative allies found it tough sledding. After the failure to merge the worst-performing college campus in the country with another a couple of miles down the road also not performing well, the steam seemed to escape from other efforts such as streamlining the duplicative governance boards and more rational distribution of merit scholarship aid through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. In the end, tinkering at the margins to shunt a school out of one system and into another and giving temporary, limited authority for schools to set tuition in exchange for promises of more efficient performance constituted the extent of progress.

Establishment of a Governance Commission to study higher education policy came as one of the consolation efforts, and, from the recommendations it has forwarded, helpfully might build momentum to getting going some of those efforts stalled in the last Legislature. Most controversially, it recommended that the Constitution be amended to strengthen the role of the Board of Regents relative to the four system boards, three for baccalaureate-and-above institutions and one for community and technical colleges.

It’s not quite the idea of creating one board to govern everything as Jindal had wanted, but it’s not too far off, either. By leaving a paucity of power for the other four boards, it won’t do much to reduce inefficient duplication, but it will create more unity in policy and prevent those four boards from working inefficiently, or at cross purposes, or to reduce the negativity of their poor decisions.

The Commission also recommended changing TOPS into a single award amount, instead of the current one weighted to reflect an average of all different levels of tuition charged by institutions, that then would change as did inflation rates. Since that program gets paid for by taxpayers and by draining the Millennium Trust Fund (courtesy of a just-approved amendment), schools has less incentive to manage funds from it wisely. If capped at the lowest level of tuition now charged and to increase thereafter at a level that has seen smaller changes than in inflation of tuition rates nationwide, schools would know they couldn’t just raise tuition and feel comfortable that the state would automatically kick in the extra amount for, in some cases most of, their students.

Of course, presently schools are hampered in their ability to set rates as tuition increases must meet with two-thirds legislative approval, the only state in the Union to endure this farce. The group had something to say about this as well, recommending removal of that law as well so to leave that in the hands of the Regents, who also would have made mandatory for the systems the use of funds by its allocation formula, which presently is not compulsory.

Bolder and needed changes did not come to pass – the Commission decided not to take the outlying community colleges, one each in the Louisiana State University and Southern systems, and put them with the Louisiana Technical and Community College System, and it did not address issues such as transforming TOPS into a true scholarship program, as now its low standards permit too many marginal and/or unmotivated students to receive money that will be wasted without its awardees finishing a baccalaureate degree. But what was suggested represents a quantum improvement over what the Legislature for decades has done left to its own devices.

However, it is the Legislature that ultimately must act on these matters. As a result of this fall’s elections, it likely is somewhat friendlier to these kinds of reforms, and having the Commission’s imprimatur also helps. Coupled with an aggressive campaign by Jindal backing these measures, perhaps 2012 will usher in the first significant reforms, starting with these, to make delivery of higher education in Louisiana more efficient and effective.

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