Higher education bills are in the home stretch; legislation to slim TOPS costs on deck _lowres

Joseph Rallo, the commissioner of higher education.

If this is what Louisiana’s higher education leaders call “bold,” then they must get their thrills watching ice melt.

Recently, the Board of Regents approved a report responding to Act 619 of 2016, designed to prompt institutions and college governing boards the Regents oversee to operate more efficiently. The legislation’s backers foresaw a report that would make wide-ranging recommendations on governance structures and the numbers and kinds of institutions, because of the state's financial constraints. For their part, higher education administrators and the Regents stated when the process began that they would comply by introducing “bold changes.”

Instead, on these crucial issues the final product punted, hiding behind the Louisiana Constitution and statutes that gives the Legislature control over systems and schools, particularly the closure of the latter. The report said that those constraints in law absolved the Regents of any responsibility to forward those kinds of recommendations. Consequently, the Regents approved no language addressing higher education’s five duplicative governance boards, three of which oversee a mishmash of institutions with different missions.

Nor did they forward proposals to merge, close, or change academic classifications of any institutions. This accepts today's bloated arrangement of collages; among states with mid-sized populations, Louisiana has more baccalaureate-and-above institutions per capita than any other.

Such abdication subverts the intent of Act 619. It specifically ordered assessment of these issues because policy-makers can achieve only marginal efficiency savings if leaders do not tackle the basic problem of too many institutions chasing too few students. The final document offered only that the Regents had a set of “Guiding Principles for Proposed Mergers, Consolidations, and Unifications,” and — pretending the law had not asked for this already — promised they could perform a future study on the matter.

That wasn’t the only way in which the report dodged legislative intent; for example, it failed to divulge mandated data that lawmakers could employ to judge the efficiency of systems, institutions, and programs. And in its discussion of reconfiguring the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students to produce more bang for the buck, the Regents whiffed.

Between initial discussions and the final product, the Regents jettisoned a plan to fund TOPS at 80 or 90 percent for underclassmen. Supporters of this idea contended that freshmen and sophomores having skin in the game would discourage them from losing eligibility or withdrawing from school, as did over 30 percent of the most recent recipient cohort of TOPS students. That wastes annually tens of millions of dollars.

The Regents also nixed requiring TOPS recipients to earn the equivalent of 30 rather than the present 24 hours per year (excluding summer terms), even though baccalaureate degrees demand a minimum of 120 hours completed to graduate and TOPS supports only four years of study. While this adjustment would add impetus to eventual degree completion, opponents maintained the extra hours would hurt students who worked — even as the basic award at present covers most tuition and fees so, with that taking care of the costliest university expense, easily obtained loans and grants could finance other student needs.

Several Regents initiatives to streamline operations that could produce relatively small savings hardly compensated for excluding these potentially significant curbs of today's waste. Rather, the official document extensively discussed pouring more state money into higher education chiefly by loosening other statutory dedications or, alternatively, creating its own dedicated revenue streams. Additionally, it pleaded for more money in GO Grants and TOPS, asked for other assistance for students, and requested additional funding sources to boost faculty member salaries.

Legislators should find unsatisfactory this response that avoids the main question, stumps for items that barely affect the status quo, and sticks a hand out. They need to hold the Regents’ feet to the fire on this matter.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.