Policymakers | Trusteeship

High standards can produce savings, quality

BATON ROUGE ADVOCATE   |  December 18, 2009 by Lanny Keller

With a mandate merely to advise, a commission at the State Capitol is debating major changes in higher education. To get something done, the grandly titled Postsecondary Education Review Commission has to sell its ideas in turn to the Board of Regents, the ultracautious Gov. Bobby Jindal and a fractious Legislature made up of lawmakers who are eager to cut the budgets only of institutions in the regions of other legislators, not their own areas.

The conventional wisdom: Waste of time.

At least one national observer argues Louisiana has a real chance for reform from PERC, and that other states have shown systemwide reforms can be made.

Anne D. Neal, of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, visited Louisiana for a PERC meeting at the invitation of New Orleans’ Pelican Institute of Public Policy. She said states have boosted standards for admissions and taken other steps to save money at the same time as boosting the quality of higher education’s output, which is students with useful degrees.

From North Carolina to Colorado to Connecticut, Neal said, higher standards for admissions have improved colleges.

It’s a waste of time and valuable resources—not least that of the students—to allow students to go to college where they have little chance of success in the standard six-year measure of degree completion.

“There is no point in pulling people in if they don’t succeed,” Neal said.

She pointed to two of America’s once-dysfunctional campuses as turnaround examples, both of them formerly open-admissions campuses that had historical graduation rates almost as low of those of the open-admissions Southern University in New Orleans.

The City University of New York has moved to admission standards but is also innovating at the community-college level, Neal said.

The system’s two-year campuses are focusing money on more advising of students, including pre-admission interviews designed to impress upon prospective students that application to class work is required.

Benno Schmidt, the former president of Yale University, is chairman of the CUNY board, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, is engaged in the reform movement. It’s not all about saving money, but focusing dollars where they get the best results: Neal said Schmidt estimates proper advising and other steps might increase costs on the front end for the institution by 40 percent. The payoff is in students completing courses with a two-year degree or skill certification.

The University of the District of Columbia was once a higher-education disaster. Under progressive mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty, both Democrats, a restructured UDC opened in August with admission standards to the four-year program and a two-year community college component.

As Jindal often has observed, Louisiana has a high percentage of students going directly into four-year campuses, compared with Southern and national averages.

None of this is news to PERC.

The recommendations that commission members plan to make include tougher admission standards and more emphasis on community colleges. Neal makes the point that strong political leadership is the key.

In the examples of CUNY and UDC, political battles for change were bloody.

“It’s a case of very strong trustees, very good appointees and very engaged public officials,” Neal said. “While other states are bemoaning the economic challenges before them, Louisiana stands out for realizing that current budget shortages provide a unique opportunity to explore ways of reducing costs, enhancing effectiveness and improving quality. By doing so, Louisiana can set a national standard for innovative, high-quality postsecondary education.”


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