SADOW: Funding Formula Must Reward Classic University Education

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, so while policy-makers should take heed of a warning presented by a source not normally associated with a quest for academic excellence when determining how to judge the performance of Louisiana’s higher education institutions, neither should this cautionary detail derail a bill setting up guidelines for such a system.

State Sen. Conrad Appel is trying again to put together a framework for state university and college governing heads to derive a measure of their institutions’ quality. His SB 337 would set parameters included in creating this instrument “as deemed appropriate,” including one that seeks to measure fidelity to alignment with workforce needs and high-demand occupations. Funding then would depend upon quality measured. A similar attempt last year failed over personality conflicts.

As with last year’s version, policy-makers must be concerned that any ensuing instrument does not allow schools to game the system, for example such as by lowering standards in order to boost retention and graduation rates. But another issue raised specifically this time around came from the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Steve Monaghan, who usually stumps for items that decrease his members’ workload as much as possible for as high pay as possible. Anybody with teaching experience knows that the higher the quality the instruction, the greater the effort that needs to be put into it.

Regardless, Monaghan pointed out that the inclusion of the workforce development criteria could impinge negatively on the larger purpose of a university education, the formation of an individual with basic academic skills and abilities. These should include education in the arts (reading for information, writing for exposition, and familiarity with these in expressions in these and other media forms) and sciences (ability to perform more than basic mathematics, and understanding about how the physical world works), human systems (how and why people behave as they do in various fields of collective endeavor), and in higher-order reasoning (ability to draw understanding of particular events from general theory, learning through the scientific method, and problem-solving through the use of logic and theory).

Ever since the concept of the university expanded from its classical foundation as a training ground on acquiring base knowledge by which to learn how to think to that including also being an adjunct to deal directly with societal issues, there has been the temptation to go too far in this latter direction (as epitomized by the infamous “multiversity” concept). Slotting the chief role of the university into that of an economic development machine would stray from the proper emphasis of its classic role.

But there are ways to prevent that even as increasing emphasis gets put upon education as economic growth engine, to ensure that the primary mission of higher education continues. Chief among these is through Louisiana’s General Education Requirements that all institutions must follow. They include instruction in the categories of English, Mathematics/Analytical Reasoning, Natural Sciences, Humanities, Fine Arts, and Social and Behavioral Sciences – all of which can shape learning according to a classic curricula. That is, to offer certain kinds of degrees, a minimum number of hours in each field must be required.

Most degrees, both two- and four-year, require 6 hours of English composition, 3 hours of math, 6 hours of natural sciences, 3 hours of humanities, 3 hours of fine arts, and 6 hours of behavioral/social sciences. All baccalaureate degrees require 39 hours except for some applied science-oriented ones where it’s only 33; all associate degrees require 27 hours except for the applied science-oriented ones where it’s only 15. Each institution may designate what courses are eligible to fulfill these requirements, depending upon their preferences and offerings. For example, my institution Louisiana State University Shreveport has many fewer offerings than what can be fulfilled at the much larger Louisiana State University Baton Rouge.

In order to quell concerns that instruction in these areas might get short shrift, the Board of Regents could make more specific course requirements and then test student performance in these. This would not work well or in a comparable sense necessary for valid use of this measurement in all areas, but for some like English composition or math it would not be difficult. For example, until about 15 years ago LSUS used to give a proficiency exam to all graduates in these two fields, where adequate scores had to be earned on one of these order to graduate. By a narrow faulty vote, a recommendation was forwarded to eliminate these to the chancellor who did so.

The larger point is that judging university performance on delivering graduates in areas that promise rapid hiring and adequate salary because these are in demand does not have to interfere with the classic intent of the university to create well-rounded, educated individuals, even in the more vocationally-oriented community colleges, perhaps even in technical colleges (which generate the vast bulk of degrees in the applied sciences). Any formula that rewards both the former and latter does the trick, and does not detract from the overall meritorious features of this bill.

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