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Political machinations, unfairness justify end to Tulane program

It’s clear the time has come to end the unique-in-academia arrangement where government officials have the power to award scholarships to a private university in Louisiana.

Starting with a 19th-century arrangement, its current version allows every legislator one and the mayor of New Orleans five annual scholarships to be awarded to Louisiana high school graduates who meet Tulane university’s entry requirements and graduation in the top quarter of their class and an American College Test combined score of 28 or a Scholastic Aptitude Test combined score of 1870 or for continuing students maintenance of a 2.3 grade point average. Until two decades ago, awarding had no academic requirements at all.

But after a spate of unfavorable publicity where family members of politically-connected individuals, if not family members of legislators themselves, received these free rides, the standards for the little-known program got established. Still, it seems not much has changed.

Policy-makers appear to take three strategies in the current environment, two of which are suspect. Most objectionable are those personally selected awardees by politicians, which should draw scorn because merit plays only a peripheral role in these selections.

While in an absolute sense the award requirements are fairly demanding – an ACT score of 28 is 8.5 points higher than the state average and only five percent of state students attain that – consider that Tulane does have selective admission standards for most students and that a 28 probably is not all that much higher than the student body’s average, nor does a 2.3 GPA to continue demand much. Yet Tulane gives out fewer full merit scholarships unrelated to this program than the program does itself. That is, students who qualify for these must have much superior credentials, or that they aren’t Louisiana residents, aren’t politically connected, or don’t know about them.

Thus, you can get a cohort of paid-in-full recipients larger in number with demonstrably inferior qualifications than the recipients who actually receive scholarships on the basis of merit, as long as politicians picking them do not make merit the first and foremost qualification and advertise it extensively. There is a second strategy that does make merit as the only qualification that some lawmakers use, but the problem there is that the opportunity is seldom known widely in their districts. That’s not really their fault – they were elected to serve in the Legislature not to be a one-person scholarship committee – but this is aggravated by the fact that each has one. This leads to many situations where no one comes forward in the district qualified; Tulane unlikely even admits a student every year from every district (and recall that House and Senate districts overlap). In that case, legislators from other districts often ask those who have come up empty to award to somebody in theirs’ (in the past year four went unfilled).

This becomes yet another temptation for political, rather than merit-based, decision-making. And it subverts the original intent of geographic diversity in awards. In short, even those politicians who might wish to award purely on a merit basis may find it difficult and end up having politics control the process.

However, a third strategy that is employed by some legislators may work: have Tulane make the call. While this might create a merit process shaped by geography – Tulane could try to award to the top student in each district, and for those unfilled then go down the line in order of merit – it still is open to abuse. Tulane could end up awarding these to influential policy-makers and/or donors to curry favors from them. There’s no direct evidence that is happening in the case of scholarships that legislators now second to Tulane, but in another instance Tulane may be using non-merit criteria already in the awarding of some.

Of the 88 sports in which the National Collegiate Athletic Association has competitions, of which Tulane is a member of its highest classification, the most prominent with the fewest relative scholarships is baseball (typically, men’s basketball and football have allowed enough full scholarships to field starting lineups and many reserves, but baseball cannot award enough to field a starting lineup and full pitching rotation). Yet in the past few years Tulane – the baseball team of which in the past has made it as far as the College World Series – has had several players on these scholarships in addition to its allowed athletic scholarships, and some of them have been stars. While no direct tradeoff has been proven that these actually were awarded even partially on the basis of athletic aptitude, the temptation to do so simply is too great.

The deal came about in the conversion of Tulane from a state to private institution, with part of it being Tulane would be immune to certain state and local taxes. The numbers show Tulane ends up forgoing about $6 million in revenues and is saved from paying about $3 million annually as a result. Thus, it eats about $3 million.

So, just end the whole thing. Tulane would be to the good $3 million, although it might consider the good will it can develop from policy-makers that it will have lost worth more than that. If it’s really desirous of seeing a stronger Louisiana presence geographically dispersed among its students, or the state mandates that as part of a new deal, it simply can expand the number of offerings with its merit-based scholarships by $3 million and it’s no worse off financially.

If that expansion is chosen, that does not entirely prevent politics from trumping merit in awards, but at least it makes it less likely to happen. The goals of the original deal of Louisiana representation and geographic diversity, if still desired, can be met without interjecting legislators and a mayor into the process who can subvert the process for electoral gain. And it increases the chances that students who can get admitted to Tulane but who can’t go there because they can’t afford tuition won’t be aced out of that opportunity by students inferior academically, but of superior political connections or athletic acumen, an arrangement that caters too much to politicians wishing to use these perquisites as inducements to their continued reelections.

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