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Flawed LA Regents report needs serious adjusting

Well, it ended up as false advertisement, but with modifications the draft response of the Louisiana Board of Regents to a legislative study request can make the state’s higher education system significantly more effective and efficient.

Act 619 of 2016 set the state’s governance board for higher education on course to review comprehensively delivery of post-secondary education. When commencing this effort last fall, leaders said they would produce a document with “bold” recommendations.

Instead, the finished product unveiled this week comes off as mild as a church mouse, which undoubtedly will disappoint the bill’s author, Republican state Sen. Sharon Hewitt. Months ago, she asked for very specific items for the Legislature to tackle in the near future. She and other legislators widely expected the effort to include guidance on streamlining the governance system and establishing a lower number of senior institutions.

If they did not understand the mindset of higher education administration before, with the report’s release they do now. Asking for those kinds of changes would reduce the amount of resources and people under control over higher education, and it never willingly will surrender any of that, especially when backed by some politicians who count upon those resources as tools to entice their reelection prospects.

Thus, the report on both questions punts, declaring it will not opine on matters established by law or the Constitution. This dramatically diminishes any value of the report, for the issue of the overbuilt and duplicative condition of Louisiana higher education at the macro level acts as the trunk of the tree for achieving efficient delivery, and every other issue branches from it.

The final report hopefully will rectify that, and a good starting point comes from the report’s look at the micro aspects of efficiency, in the area of program/degree offerings and support services. It uses the Regional Labor Market Area designation to analyze this issue, calling for coordination within these. The same template can apply to institutional restructuring (exclusive of the medical schools), where the Capital/Florida Parishes and Northshore/Orleans area regions could have two senior institutions and four junior institutions serve these, while the other six regions would have one senior and three junior institutions permitted. This would require consolidations and demotions of institutions, if not closures.

But, if the final report fails to make this consideration, then legislators must revisit the issue and legislate explicit orders to the Regents to do that. Related to that, the final version also must address the uncoordinated nature of the four management boards, which defy the classification system introduced by the Regents that defines schools as comprehensive, specialized (i.e. research and professional), statewide, regional, or community and technical. The Louisiana State University System has four of these kinds, the Southern University System three, the University of Louisiana System two, while only the Louisiana Community and Technical College System unsurprisingly displays some coherence with just the one type under its jurisdiction.

Far more rational would be to confine systems to no more than two kinds of school without duplicating the combination. For example, LSU would have the specialized and comprehensive schools, ULS would have all the statewide and regional schools, LCTCS would maintain as is, and SUS would have its institutions parceled out to or merged into the other systems. Again, failure of the final report to do so would necessitate further legislation ordering the Regents to report on system restructuring.

Beyond these crucial aspects, at the margins the report provides some useful information, although every unevenly if not contradictorily. For example, it recommends allowing another round of Granting Resources and Autonomy for Diplomas contracts for schools that give them some control over tuition, and extension of increased fee-setting ability, yet also stumps for the horrible idea of setting a minimum floor of state subsidization while suggesting unlocking other dedications to allow sending more appropriations to higher education.

Nor does it recommendations regarding student aid rise above mediocrity. It advises somewhat sensibly in reference to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars by asking either for graduated funding of TOPS increasing the farther along a student progresses to degree completion or for a fixed grant to all qualifiers. However, none of this gets at the root of the TOPS problem: it’s not a merit-based program because of low standards, nor does it act as need-based, but instead serves as an entitlement that works inefficiently because of its generosity, originally defined as paying all tuition for eight regular semester equivalents.

Yet, unwittingly, the report contains the seeds of adjustment to TOPS if policy-makers don’t have the courage to make it into a true merit-based program. Until last year, any funding of the program that fell short of full would have awarded on the basis of merit to qualify for the program. Unfortunately, in the face of realizing it likely would not receive full funding, the entitlement mentality won out and policy-makers changed the law to award it proportionately per qualifying student. As it turned out, that represented for the basic award for senior institutions  only about 70 percent of the whole.

Simultaneously, another law passed that fixed the amount given in TOPS money to the academic year 2017 award amount in perpetuity unless the Legislature chose to increase that level. The way it commonly was conceived to work was whatever tuition charged in AY 2017 would be the TOPS award, so if tuition increased in the future to catch up to that the Legislature would have to vote affirmatively to raise that level.

However, the language of the law actually sets the amount at the 70 percent funding level in play for this academic year. The report urges the Legislature to correct that to the actual tuition levels charged this year, but that tactic would destroy a useful corrective that fell into policy-makers’ laps: the lower the level of subsidization, the fewer ill effects it realizes. Rather than graduating funding or fixing it across all institutions, if policy-makers lack the courage to turn TOPS into a genuine scholarship program, they simply should do nothing and make the 70 percent of AY 2017 funding the new norm.

There are more suggestions worth parsing, but, in the final analysis, the draft presented lacks the necessary boldness to do more than make marginal helpful changes. If the final version looks like this, legislators must order Louisiana higher education to try again and try harder.

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