UL Chief: School funding should be ‘fair fight’

Louisiana and the country do a poor job grading colleges on performance, often punishing schools that do more with less, the leader of the state’s largest network of four-year universities said Monday.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley specifically took aim at the way the federal government calculates graduation rates.

The formula calculates only first-time freshmen who enroll during the fall, and who take a full load of classes, and start and finish at one school and graduate within six years.

In other words, the federal graduation formula doesn’t cover students who begin college as part-time students, or who begin at community colleges then transfer to four-year schools or any student who transfers at any point during his college career.

The result is that a lot of students earn college degrees but don’t get counted in the graduation rate. The rate often determines how much money schools get from states and the federal government.

As an accomplished academic who’s held positions across the South, most recently at the University of Texas, Woodley was among those students who earned a degree that didn’t count according to federal guidelines.

Since arriving in Louisiana about a year ago, Woodley has become an advocate for so-called nontraditional students, as opposed to traditional students who start college right after high school and typically finish without interruption.

Woodley often tells the story of how she got married at age 18 and was raising children by the time she was in her early 20s.

“It took me 10 years to finish my baccalaureate degree,” she told the Press Club of Baton Rouge. “With two young children, I did most of my college at night. I was a failure in every graduation statistic.”

In her talk, she stressed the importance for policymakers to consider nuance when looking at how to fund colleges. A school like LSU should not be judged in the same way a much smaller school like McNeese State University in Lake Charles is evaluated. The schools generally cater to different populations of students, she said.

Woodley used the University of Texas system as an example, noting that the campus in Austin is made up mostly of traditional students “on a straight path” to graduation, while the campus in Tyler mostly serves nontraditional students starting school later in life.

The difference, she said, is that the Tyler campus is looked at as having a dismal graduation rate when the school actually does a good job of serving nontraditional students.

Woodley said the state and the federal government should revamp the way graduation rates are looked at in order to accurately see which schools are doing a good job and which ones are not.

“We don’t want to make excuses about our performance, but when you look at performance it has to be a fair fight,” Woodley said. “You don’t want to punish schools for doing exactly what they are supposed to do.”