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Scorecard confirms wisdom of LA tuition hikes

Last week the federal government released its long-publicized College Scorecard, promoted multiple times by Louisiana State University System President F. King Alexander. While not all that it promised, it still gives an instructive read on the condition of Louisiana-based institutions of higher education.

The web site takes some basic facts about schools, which includes all that deliver higher education for which data were collected such as costs, graduation rates, and subsequent graduates’ salaries, and makes them available in various categories. For example, one could request a listing of all Louisiana senior institutions that are not for-profit, and for each the basic facts appear. Clicking on a specific school introduces more detailed information. However, unlike what once was touted, the system does not stamp a grade on the school, confining itself to information presentation.

Nonetheless, crude metrics can be developed to assess school quality on a comparative basis. A simple one can take three statistics – the “net price” per year (tuition and fees plus weighed living expenses minus typical financial aid), graduation rate (of non-transfer students), and median salary of graduates ten years after graduation (of those who accessed financial aid) – and can compute a measure of the salary divided by the price multiplied by the graduation rate to give a rough measure of quality. Presumably, better schools are those that produce higher salaries at lower pricing while graduating more students.

Obviously, the measures leave something to be desired. The living expenses calculations can be unreliable. The graduation rate does not include transfer students. The universe of students receiving financial aid differs somewhat from those that don’t. Still, a measure can be produced of some validity to compare the state’s non-specialty, non-for-profit baccalaureate and above universities.

Looking at the frame as a whole of the 21 schools, generally the public, non-historically black universities and colleges score the best, followed by the private schools, with the HBUC schools at the bottom. HBUC schools tend to have higher prices, lower rates, and lower salaries while the private schools have much higher prices with rates and salaries hardly better than the public schools. Louisiana State University Baton Rouge scores the best for its moderate-to-high relative price, second-highest graduation rate, and third-highest salaries. LSU Alexandria scores the lowest for price not much below LSU’s, relatively low salary, and very low rate.

Of more policy-making relevance is comparing these results to national figures, for the public schools. Nationally for four-year public schools, the average price is about $14,100, rate is 44 percent, and median salary is around $39,900. For Louisiana, the weighed average price is just under $10,000, while only LSU and Louisiana Tech University are above the graduation rate, with most schools below it and some at least 10 and as many as 29 points below, and they also are above the salary, with all but two of the others within $10,000 of that amount. (These numbers are from 2012.)

Most illuminating here is the relatively low price of attending university in Louisiana. At only about 70 percent of the national average – which inherently is adjusted for cost-of-living – this provides more evidence that the state underprices its tuition and fees.

This also explains why on the computed metric ten state schools score above the national figure, despite relatively lower salaries and rates. The low price compensates to make Louisiana colleges average values in the national pool.

These results point the way forward for higher education policy in the state: increase tuition and fees and use the proceeds to improve quality that results in higher graduation rates and better quality output that draws higher salaries. This runs counter to the prevailing orthodoxy of higher education in the state, which overburdens taxpayers, but seems the most efficacious path to making Louisiana higher education more than just of middling value.

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