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Higher admission criteria will fail without other reforms

The politics of demagoguery and putting of special interests first are coming home to roost for Louisiana as the day draws closer to the implementation of just one of many needed changes in its higher education delivery, in potentially setting the state up for failure. One hopes this serves as a wake-up call to implement needed others before the system takes a turn, reversing the small progress of the past few years, to even greater inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

Readers of this space have known that looming changes to admissions standards for baccalaureate-and-above institutions, beginning this fall and continuing through 2014, will reshape profoundly the landscape of higher education, forcing a significant shift in students and thereby resources from these institutions to community colleges. This will create more slack resources for the senior colleges although, theoretically, increased performance will come from the student body as a whole, as marginal students no longer would begin an academic career at a four-year university and have a better chance of degree completion.

Particularly affected will be the lowest performing universities, in terms of retention and graduation rates. During last year’s debate over the combining of Southern University New Orleans, the University of New Orleans, and Delgado Community College, this space pointed out the impending standards increase alone justified the effort.
As SUNO had the country’s lowest six-year graduation rate, UNO one of the lowest, both with many slack resources to begin with because of the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, and future freshmen classes further reduced by the change (in the case of SUNO, devastated: approximately seven of eight of its admittances from high school last year would not qualify under the new standards), it made perfect sense to create this University of Greater New Orleans, shift much of SUNO’s functioning to UNO, and give many of SUNO’s resources to Delgado, which presumably would face a large enrollment increase in this new environment. Instead, the politics of race and symbolism torpedoed the reform, and taxpayers now will foot the bill for empty classrooms, instructors without students, and bureaucracy bloated further by all the ancillary support costs that go along with educating for students not there.

More generally, as a result of the change, an overbuilt system of baccalaureate-and-above institutions only will become exacerbated. Even as overall cohort performance at each may improve, savings will be marginal overall and the actual per student cost will go up. Only through the same rejected specific idea in New Orleans, mergers and even closures of these institutions, will any significant savings accrue, and may even improve performance further. Yet again the outlook seems dim for actual achievement of this, yet again for political reasons with so many politicians and higher education employees more interested in retaining power and jobs than in system improvement.

And the overbuilt status applies not just to the top end of the spectrum. Louisiana has too many technical colleges as well, to the point that most parishes in the state have one or more of a public four-year university, a two-year college, or a technical school – numbering about six dozen campuses. In today’s era of modern travel and communications that assist efforts in receiving higher education, as well as the lengthening list of proprietary schools offering training, there’s no reason to have many of these schools, whose enrollments are lower than local high schools with some in cities whose entire populations may be two or three times the size of a high school’s. Without right-sizing Louisiana higher education, inducing real efficiency into higher education spending is like trying to empty a swimming pool with a cup.

But the more efficient resource allocation that will come from higher standards will serve only as someone trying to bail water out of the ocean considering the raft of counterproductive policies that will dampen the impact of the change – if not subvert it entirely. Lax qualifications for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students continue to fund tuition for students scoring below the national average for high school seniors on the American College Test (if right about the average of all its takers), encouraging marginal and unmotivated students to enter college where they disproportionately drop out and thereby waste taxpayer monies. Recently reaffirmed by outside studying, duplicative governance structures continue to waste money and promote inefficient execution. Free tuition above 12 semester hours and later drop dates force colleges to hire more instructors and to have more classroom infrastructure in place than necessary.

However, the two biggest impediments, as yet unresolved, concern admittance policies and instruction at the community college level, and instruction issues and transfer policies relative to the baccalaureate institutions. The dirty secret of the new admissions policies is they still provide much opportunity for substandard students to enter the senior system.

Theoretically, the unprepared but motivated student will now head to a community college. After taking a sufficient number of hours there, which also serve to bring the student up to speed to face the rigors of upper-division coursework, the student transfers to a four-year institution. Money is saved and more associates and bachelors degrees are awarded because instruction at the lower level is done as effectively but more cheaply, and superior matching of capability to pedagogy and expectations better retains students to enable more to complete degrees.

This works as intended, however, only if the level of instruction at both levels occurs to provide quality education to these marginal students. By definition, they are marginal because they cannot perform up to a certain level of expectation and meet this standard without greater effort on both their parts and their instructors’. These kinds of students will appear because community colleges have been left as open admissions institutions, needing only a high school diploma or General Equivalency Degree for admittance. But the funding formula produces more money for institutions the greater number of students stay in school and graduate, while higher standards needed to get these students ready to move on do the opposite in making it more difficult for them to stay in school and graduate, absent greater commitment by students and a scholastic environment to encourage and facilitate that.

All of which creates the perverse incentive for schools instead not to motivate greater commitment but to lower standards and expectations in order to pump up retention and graduation rates on behalf of these marginal students. Many then get passed along to universities – in essence, the same students they would have gotten under the admission standards about to change, just a half, or one, or two years later. And, facing the same kind of funding formula, they also will feel pressure to lower standards because of these students. Unless procedures are put into place to prevent this temptation, this behavior would subvert entirely the entire purpose of higher admissions standards for four-year schools.

One thing that could help would be having minimal admissions standards at community colleges, which would signal the truly inadequate interested in post-secondary education to head to a technical school. Another might be not to allow automatic transfer from community colleges of students meeting the (low) transfer eligibility standards, but to require passing a test in the areas of the mandated English and mathematics general education requirement courses they must have taken to transfer. Setting the bar sufficiently high on that instrument would encourage standards maintenance at the community college level and resisting pressure by senior colleges to have to accept unprepared students and not drop standards also for the sake of their retention and completer statistics.

Absent these kinds of measures, my quarter-century in academia witnessing erosion of student capabilities and standards over that time as well as additional recent evidence of this from elsewhere in the state shows this not to be an unlikely scenario. Which goes to show that, left in isolation of larger systemic changes, while the increase of admissions standards will help and is welcome, it comes nowhere close to tackling at a necessary magnitude system inefficiency and the wasteful spending that results, if it will do so at all. Only by putting the interests of taxpayers and those committed to increased quality higher education provision in the state first, and giving them the tools to do so, can prevent this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You've pointed out a potential problem that I had not thought of, i.e., that students coming over to UL and elsewhere from community colleges might not be truly able to handle the curriculum here, especially if the curriculum there is too watered down. I'm not crazy about either of your suggestions however (standards for entrance, passing exit exams) for various reasons. I'm not sure what the answer is though. Unless there is some assurance of quality teaching and assessment at the community college level a problem will be in the making.