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LSU defiance illustrates LA dysfunction

It’s confirmed: Louisiana State University, backed by its system’s Board of Supervisors, continues to thumb its nose at the Louisiana Board of Regents. Now the Regents have to decide what to do, if they can do anything, pointing out again the dysfunctional way in which state higher education is organized.

Last year, a policy choice made by LSU that violates Regents’ assigned admissions standards became public. The current class at the time admitted by LSU contained almost twice the proportion of exceptional admittances, where the school surreptitiously relaxed standards that didn’t automatically reject those with an American College Test score of 22 and a grade point average of 3.0/4.0 and 19 core hours.

As a result, the Regents pledged to audit admissions at all universities. Louisiana operates under a three-tiered system, where LSU has the highest bar and may enroll only four percent of a class that does not meet the standards, both metrics established by the Regents. Although the audit had some questions about data submitted by some institutions that will require following up, it confirmed that only LSU unambiguously violated policy by admitting 7.5 percent of its class through exception.

When originally disclosing the violation, LSU provided statistics about the exceptional students prior to 2018 that showed they were significantly less likely to complete a degree at LSU, and even that figure was distorted higher by the presence of student-athletes many of whom have extensive academic resources available like tutoring to which other students don’t have access. This made a lie of the claim by LSU that students accepted in “holistic” fashion were just as capable of as those who met the regular admission criteria.

LSU has not made available publicly these data, nor that of the cohort’s performance this past academic year. In response to a media query, a school official replied, “[a]fter its first year, the class has matched or exceeded previous freshman classes in GPA, persistence from fall to spring semesters, number of credits earned, and maintaining their TOPS awards – including the students that the Board of Regents mentioned in its report.” Note, however, this didn’t give numbers comparing GPA or completion performance of the 2018 holistically-admitted cohort with regularly-admitted students, which likely means that cohort significantly underperformed on these metrics.

As a first step, the Regents should demand that data. These should confirm the continued abrogation of LSU’s duty as defined by the Regents. These also should amplify the already largely non-selective nature of LSU that can ill-afford further degradation by allowing the holistic policy to continue.

The problem is, what can the Regents do to stop it? Constitutionally, the Regents set policy which then separate management boards implement. But in this case, the LSU Supervisors show no inclination to rein in LSU.

Typically, an entity overseeing higher education can exert control through budgeting. And actually, flying below the radar, this year saw a change in budgeting practices that theoretically could strengthen the Regents. In recent years, the only money appropriated to the Regents funded its staff operations, but this year, in response to a new funding formula, significant general fund monies now flow to the Regents, which then distribute these to the systems, which then parcel out to the individual campuses.

This more than $700 million total additional budget authority transferred from system to Regents control they could use to enforce policies like admissions standards. Theoretically, they could penalize LSU for its actions, such as by cutting out support for the equivalent of the excessive number of exceptional admissions.

Except there’s this statement on p. 112 of the operating budget: “Out of the funds appropriated herein pursuant to the formula and plan adopted by the Board of Regents for postsecondary education … the amounts shall be allocated to each postsecondary education institution within the respective system as provided herein. Allocations to institutions within each system may be adjusted as authorized for program transfers … as long as the total system appropriation of Means of Finance remain unchanged in order to effectively utilize the appropriation authority provided herein” (emphasis mine).

In other words, the Regents can cut from LSU only if they redistribute the amount among other schools in the system. But with the exception of Louisiana State University Shreveport (my employer), Louisiana State University Alexandria, Louisiana State University Eunice, and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, all other system spending relates to LSU. With 90 percent of system budget authority going to LSU or its parts, that makes it difficult to move money around without distortion. Further, the Regents would need to cooperation of the Division of Administration to do this, which may or may not be forthcoming.

So, the Regents will have to get creative to find a way to punish LSU. But it never should have come to this, because of inane organization of higher education governance in Louisiana. Unlike every other state where some kind of governing board has sole authority over an institution or set of them, only Louisiana has a two-layered system that not only spurs duplication and waste but also fragments authority in unhelpful ways.

This incident serves as Exhibit A, and just adds to the inefficiency of an overbuilt system that, even as too many institutions chase too few students, then misallocates too many of those students into the wrong level of institution for state educational and workforce needs. While this problem come typically from students attending senior rather than junior institutions, this incident shows students attending the flagship school who should enroll at a lower level also contributes to the waste of taxpayer funds.

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