The announcement that LSU will de-emphasize a set level of ACT scores as a condition to acceptance is a further sign of a failure of leadership in our state. State government has many important functions but unfortunately one of these, higher education, has been ignored by this governor and his predecessors.
Our state post-secondary education policy is supposed to be created and overseen by the Board of Regents. One of its most important principles in their long-standing policy has been that acceptance into our universities was controlled by a combination of quantitative metrics; GPA results and ACT scores. Regents had established minimum ACT results ranging from the highest level for LSU and stair-stepping down to the lowest level for Southern University, with the others spread out in the between. The goal of the policy was that students would have a basic level of knowledge and discipline so that they would have a reasonable chance to graduate from the school in a reasonable time frame. It must be noted that compared to many other state and private universities our score requirements were not particularly high, but this is Louisiana.
Further value that was expected to flow from this policy was that these standards would also assure future employers a degree of confidence that based upon which school the student had graduated from, the employer could expect that a job candidate was of a determinable educational achievement and self-discipline. In simple terms the higher the school’s standards the more likely that the graduates would be of higher educational attainment.
As an adjunct to this policy students who, based upon their high school performance, were not quite up to the standards for a particular school could attend community college and raise their performance level so that they could transfer into a four year school. There were two advantages in this; community college is far less expensive for the state to provide remedial education and should the student not do well they could at least attain enough skills that they could enter the job market.
But as with everything else Louisiana, almost from the beginning politics has been working against this strategy.
The various attacks on Regents’ policy are voluminous but most of them resolve themselves into one thing – money. When Regents’ standards were established the great failure of our K-12 education system became very apparent. These failures manifested themselves by a decline in the number of students qualifying to enter many of our four year institutions. This decline in qualified applicants, coupled with a declining economy, reduced student population and with it school revenue.
At about the same time Governor Jindal sought to bring Louisiana into line with other states in the ratio of state contribution versus student contribution to higher education. Almost all other states traditionally maintained a ratio of about 70% student tuition and fees to 30% state contribution. In our case, going back decades to the days when petro-dollars flowed freely, that ratio was inverted.
Over a few years’ time Governor Jindal succeeded in re-aligning our post-secondary financial structure into a model not unlike most states. To his detriment, though not wholly due to the changes he introduced and continuing under our current governor we have lagged badly in total dollars making it to our schools’ coffers. Correcting the balance between state and student costs was good policy, not properly funding higher education in general is very bad policy. Ironically costs paid by Louisiana students are still on the low end of the states, but so is our state contribution level. The result is we are spreading too little, too widely to see anything but mediocre results.
Now one might ask if we were running low on financial resources why would we not undertake a serious consolidation of our institutions. Well, I tried that back in 2010 and that ugly word, politics, got in the way. So with that option off the table and a voraciously growing redirection of state financial resources into state run healthcare by our current governor, the outlook for our schools to be able to grow revenues has gotten bleak.
Starting a year or so ago and even though it was a very low bar, the Southern University system broke down the entrance standards strategy that was established by Regents so long ago. They used what can only be called subterfuge to allow underachieving students into SUNO. The result will be an undoubtable lowering of the overall quality of the student population – and that, in an institution with an astonishingly low graduate rate to begin with.
This action was followed by the recent politically correct announcement that LSU will lower, perhaps eliminate, the ACT requirement. The result of that move will be a sea of potential candidates for matriculation into LSU. If this decision moves us toward open enrollment the overall quality of the student population will decline and the prestige of the university will suffer.
That brings me to the real core of our problem. It is not what Southern or LSU has done, it is a clear lack of structure that exists in post-secondary governance. We created in our constitution a Board of Regents that is supposed to be independent of politics, to be responsible for our overall strategy, to create a consensus in that strategy, and to inspire confidence that its vision is meaningful and worthy of financial and other support.
Sadly I cannot say that the concepts envisioned by our constitution work. Instead I believe that the constitution may well work against us by allowing, in contravention to the Board of Regents, each of our four System Boards far too much autonomy. Perhaps we should call the Board of Regents a toothless tiger because in what should be their role they rarely serve as they should. As believed by our people they should be the Board that sets, implements, and enforces policy but that is not so. In fact the Board of Regents could, if they chose to, do just that. But it would be a political problem for the governor and the legislature if they did. Such actions would cost jobs, patronage, contracts, and yes, maybe even football subsidies! So they do not exercise their constitutional and statutory authority and worse they do not take advantage of the great “bully pulpit” that they have to drive a strategy.
The proof of what I say is right before our eyes; Regents says that we should have standards and Southern and LSU decide otherwise. The Board of Regents is conspicuous by its silence! Are Southern and LSU right in their course of action? I don’t know but without operating in a clearly defined strategy established by Regents the results is chaos. And such chaos could metastasize as each of the System Boards senses that lack of will by Regents and takes unilateral actions, such as lowering admission standards, without the benefit of an overarching plan. Mark my words, soon all of the schools will follow Southern and LSU and we will have a race to the bottom with one goal; fill the coffers.
I have many times written about a lack of vision at the highest level of our state government. Our current governor as well his predecessors has not placed any priority on post-secondary education. We can only hope that the next governor will value education and make prosperity through education a true priority. That would only take the political courage to empower the Board of Regents to act as it should be expected to act, or in the alternative, to lead us to create one super-board and eliminate our present structure of five Boards. Either way will suffice to bring our state into the 21st century.
Today’s form of management of higher education was created a hundred years ago and was developed under the political pragmatism of that time. It will be hard to kill, but kill it we must if we want to achieve the hopes and dreams of our people.