SUNO Backers Claim Immunity From Standards, Accountability

At a meeting this morning in a packed gym on campus, backers of Southern University-New Orleans rallied in opposition to a proposed merger with the University of New Orleans put forth by Gov. Bobby Jindal earlier this month.

One could argue what was said at the meeting, as quoted by the Times-Picayune’s John Pope in his piece on the gathering today, did little to advance the cause of keeping SUNO alive as a separate entity.

The money quote from the rally was delivered by the president of SUNO’s alumni association, Randolph Scott. Scott answered the central objection to keeping the school afloat, namely a six-year graduation rate assessed by the federal Department of Education at a scandalously low five percent, in a defiant, if unwise, manner…

“Southern University was not developed to graduate people,” he said. “It was developed to give (poor and poorly prepared) people…the opportunity to get a higher education. We don’t have to graduate anybody.”

SUNO claims a six-year graduation rate of some 9.28 percent. SUNO also has been unable to produce simple statistics on classroom occupancy since 2005, statistics both UNO and Delgado Community College have been able to produce.

Regardless of the number, which in any event is less than 10 percent (the American Enterprise Institute, in its study on six-year graduation rates published last fall, pegs SUNO at an eight percent rate), the mentality expressed by Scott – namely that SUNO isn’t responsible for producing graduates because what’s important is that a certain constituency gets access to something resembling higher education – seems to have pervaded the meeting.

Several speakers stressed the importance of historically black colleges such as SUNO for the work they do with students who are poorly prepared for college work while in high school.

SUNO officials contend that the federal figure undercounts the number of people who earn degrees there because it counts only full-time freshmen who finished undergraduate work at the same institution where they started at within six years.

This is not possible for many students because they have to juggle jobs and family responsibilities, several speakers said, and many return to college after years away from academics.

Anthony Jeanmarie, a 35-year-old senior, called SUNO “the only place where a 35-year-old … who walked away from college and came back can earn a degree. If not SUNO, where?”

The more practical excuse being offered for the poor graduation rate at SUNO, namely that many of its students are of the untraditional variety and are working while in school, etc., is similar to that offered as justification for UNO’s unappealing graduation rate – 24 percent, according to the AEI study. SUNO offers open admissions, a policy from which it has attained an enrollment of 3,141 students – 96 percent of whom are African-American. UNO admits 77 percent of its applicants; 57 percent of its 11,724 students are white.

Certainly, students who are balancing academic pursuits with jobs and families will have a more difficult time graduating in six years than full-time students enjoying the traditional college experience. But even measured against other urban, commuter-oriented schools across the South, SUNO and UNO both show unimpressive graduation rates.

A sampling of other public universities in urban Southern settings SUNO and UNO could be reasonably compared to (per the AEI study)…

  • Alabama-Birmingham: 13,146 students, 38 percent grad rate
  • Auburn-Montgomery: 3,856 students, 27 percent grad rate
  • South Alabama (Mobile): 11,618 students, 37 percent grad rate
  • Arkansas-Little Rock: 8,843 students, 20 percent grad rate
  • Florida A&M (Tallahassee/HBCU): 10,678 students, 39 percent grad rate
  • Central Florida (Orlando): 39,639 students, 59 percent grad rate
  • South Florida (Tampa): 35,247 students, 49 percent grad rate
  • Georgia State (Atlanta): 22,136 students, 47 percent grad rate
  • Savannah State (HBCU): 2,860 students, 40 percent grad rate
  • Louisville: 17,294 students, 44 percent grad rate
  • Jackson State (HBCU): 7,431 students, 36 percent grad rate
  • North Carolina-Charlotte: 18,686 students, 51 percent grad rate
  • Memphis: 16,276 students, 34 percent grad rate
  • Lamar (Beaumont): 8,328 students, 36 percent grad rate
  • Texas Southern (Houston/HBCU): 8,228 students, 12 percent grad rate
  • Houston-Downtown (29 percent black/39 percent Hispanic): 8,370 students, 16 percent grad rate
  • Houston: 28,476 students, 43 percent grad rate
  • Texas-Arlington: 19,319 students, 52 percent grad rate
  • Texas-Dallas: 11,202 students, 55 percent grad rate
  • Texas-El Paso: 15,259 students, 29 percent grad rate
  • Texas-San Antonio: 23,409 students, 30 percent grad rate
  • Norfolk State (HBCU): 5,292 students, 31 percent grad rate
  • Virginia Commonwealth (Richmond): 25,890 students, 47 percent grad rate

The facts don’t lie; UNO and SUNO compare poorly with virtually every analogous institution in Southern states. And in the AEI study there is no public university in the nation with a graduation rate as shameful as SUNO’s graduation rate. There are a very few schools out there with rates in the single digits, but every one of them is a private school (in particular, for-profit schools and especially those who offer online degrees tend to have very low graduation rates due to their catering to similar student populations to those SUNO and UNO service).

We ran the numbers from SUNO’s 2009-10 Annual Report and calculated that at 3,100 students SUNO’s $40.3 million budget indicates it costs the state $13,000 per student per year. SUNO’s website indicates it charges $1,594 per semester in in-state tuition, which means that taxpayers are footing a bill of about $10,000 per year for students at a school Scott says “was not developed to graduate people.” It should be noted that most SUNO students are taking on some kind of debt to fund their education – so the idea that attending SUNO and not earning a degree means those students have wasted their time and put themselves into debt in the bargain.

If a white Republican from the suburbs had said SUNO was not developed to graduate people and that “(they) don’t have to graduate anybody,” said white Republican would be lambasted as the worst kind of racist. And for good reason. The statement implies that since SUNO’s clientele happens to be almost exclusively African-American, it is of value to the taxpayers to offer what amounts to adult daycare to them at a cost of $10,000 per year. This, when next door UNO has the facilities to absorb double SUNO’s student body and still not return to the enrollment that university had prior to Katrina – and when Delgado Community College less than five miles away has the ability to process those open-admission students into a relatively marketable associates’ degree which can carry into admission at UNO if necessary.

That, of course, is the vision Jindal offered as part of the proposed merger.

The level of entitlement and lack of accountability involved in making such a statement is breathtaking, and it serves as a wonderful argument not for merging SUNO and UNO but shutting SUNO down altogether. The political implications of such a move have made it almost unthinkable to do so thus far; many more rallies like the one this morning, and it might even become likely.



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