SADOW: Legislators Whiff On Tulane Scholarship Reform

Give Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor credit for figuring it out. But that still didn’t make a difference in the final outcome.

Claitor saw his SB 183 go down in flames yesterday. The bill would have reined in the expansive Tulane Legislative Scholarship program (a separate one exists for the mayor of New Orleans), which allows legislators to pick essentially anyone except themselves, including business partners, friends, relatives (except for children, although this isn’t written into law), and donors and their families, to attend Tulane University tuition-free (these deals from 1884 allowed Tulane to separate itself from the state to become a private university and granted it property tax-free status in Orleans Parish).

Over the decades, a number of students related to elected officials, lobbyists, and donors have received this largesse. Even though Tulane has implemented programs that permit legislators to have the university make the decision, only a few Jefferson Parish legislators on occasion have defaulted to that. Others have set up their own imprecise procedures that inject some merit rating to applicants, but the vast majority of selections come down to who knows who and/or who’s asking.

Worse, the opportunity to distribute these without any reference to merit has widened. While Tulane continues to advertise guaranteed admission standards for Louisiana residents, in fact it has set up an process that allows students with test scores and grade point averages far below those publicized to win admittance. Thus, political pressure (even if never explicitly applied) can get in the door a legislator’s preferred candidate, even if by these criteria rated significantly below the typical enrollee, whereupon the legislator then grooves the winner a free ride (for at least a year, but especially non-term limited legislators essentially can assure a recipient of getting the whole degree paid for).

It’s a system that treats a statewide resource belonging to the people like a patronage gift tied to a legislator, inviting questionable dealings. It long has needed to be taken out of the hands of legislators.

Five years ago, while Claitor ran unsuccessfully for Congress, he proposed a bill that didn’t go far enough. Essentially, while it gave the option to let Tulane decide impartially, it still permitted legislators to set up their own mechanisms for selection, which didn’t solve the problem of legislators deciding as well as would have created a bureaucratic morass.

Perhaps because it still left legislators with selection discretion, it made it out of the Senate, but was killed in House committee. SB 183, by contrast, left no discretion with legislators as it mandated that the state pick awardees in a merit competition from criteria established by Tulane.

Predictably, this couldn’t even make it out of Senate committee, with the usual blather rendered in defense of the current arrangement. A government-as-usual advocate, Democrat state Sen. Troy Carter, said the current arrangement allowed students everywhere in the state a shot to study at Tulane – despite the fact its availability is poorly known and its contingent status (technically, a student could lose it after a year, leaving the family to face huge bills or transfer elsewhere) discourages applicants. Carter didn’t specify how the change would impact this, since the bill would have allowed for statewide application and actually likely would have publicized existence of the scholarships better.

Yet even those who should know better defended the current arrangement. Republican state Sen. Mike Walsworth, who usually supports good government/reform legislation like this, opined that, as no state school offered to pay all tuition and fees – even though Louisiana State University advertises that it does – having the legislative scholarships fulfilled this purpose, with a “personal touch” by legislators. Why that matters he didn’t say, but if he finds fault with the full scholarship possibilities offered by Louisiana state institutions, as a voter on nominees to the Board of Regents and higher education management boards and on the budgets going to universities, he has input into changing that environment.

At least Claitor figured it out and offered a good bill. If only his colleagues could see the wisdom in it, with their refusal to do so perpetuating politics as usual.

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