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Response to challenge LA higher education improvement

The Louisiana Board of Regents made the right call in holding Louisiana State University – Eunice accountable for its decisions, but the episode demonstrates the perils the policy-makers and educators face in trying to improve delivery of higher education.

School and LSU system officials petitioned the Regents to exempt LSU-E from meeting requirements voluntarily entered into by the college in order to get increased state funding and higher tuition rates. While almost every requirement was met, one fell distinctly short, and administrators asked that, under the agreement’s “extraordinary circumstances” clause, for next year the failure not abrogate its chances to receive at least a portion of almost 25 percent of projected funding. They argued that budget cuts, in part causing larger class sizes that theoretically would have a negative impact on the problem area, retention, and a general slow economic climate justified the request.

The Regents refused, rightly noting that all institutions were on the record knowing that state budgetary tightness did not constitute an excuse and that LSU-E had been told that, if in doubt, to lower its projections of retention.
Apparently that was not done at the behest of LSU System President John Lombardi, perhaps because he thought aggressive goals met would reduce pressure on the school from being moved out of the LSU System, as it is just one of two that are not under the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, designed to administer two-year colleges like LSU-E.

But none of this is new information. In its annual report on the agreement last spring, LSU-E noted the retention problem and cited the excuses. Not that these seem completely compelling: average class size barely increased from a little under 22 to a little over 24, and economic harder times tend to increase the number of people going to college typically. In fact, that historical observation might have been at the heart of the retention problem. As community colleges in Louisiana are open admissions, more marginal students may have been enrolling, increasing the proportion overall that washed out.

The Regents did say they would set up a contingency fund of perhaps three-quarters of the lost state funding if LSU-E could show improvement, fair enough considering the school met its other goals. Such a response also begins to address, but not entirely, the perverse incentive inherent to the nature of the use of retention as a standard: the pressure to fail to demand excellence in the classroom.

Simply, in order to meet retention goals, meaning students stay at that school, and when combined with a goal of increasing timely graduation rates, the path of least resistance is not to insist on rigor in teaching. Don’t ask much of students to get good grades and to pass, and more of them will stay in school and graduate, making retention and graduation statistics look better.

Most instructors instinctively recoil from passing along students that they can tell through their performances clearly do not deserve to pass or to get any but the lowest passing grades. However, at the same time many disincentives exist both internally and externally to seek and encourage excellence through establishing and implementing demanding standards in the assignment of grades. Internally, it means more work for instructors (the more you ask of students, the more you must put into it such as in preparation and grading demands). Externally, students with lower grades tend to complain more to administrators (and more often than ever these days, given the grade inflation they have enjoyed before in their educational careers), who then feel compelled to investigate the matter to ensure it’s the standards and not the methods triggering the restiveness. Nobody likes these headaches that can be reduced or avoided simply by not asking much from students.

In an environment where lower salaries, almost no increases in it over the past decade, and other inequities are perceived by faculty members, it’s easy to adopt the attitude of (as I have been told) “give yourself a raise, work less.” And subtle pressure may extend from administrators to adopt lower standards in order to meet standards. Neither attitude promotes excellence in the classroom by discouraging the use of high standards both as a motivational tool to achieve more learning and as an intrinsic reward itself.

The LSU-E response on this account should prove interesting. Will instructors back off and/or administrators push for mediocrity, in order to increase retention? The greatest policy change that lies ahead for the ambitious reconstruction of Louisiana public higher education will be to increase rigor that improves outcomes while preventing failure to achieve this through deleterious gamesmanship, unintentional or otherwise.

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