Three Southern campuses fail to meet GRAD requirements

Aerial view of the Southern University campus in Baton Rouge. Show caption
Aerial view of the Southern University campus in Baton Rouge.

Tuition won’t be rising at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Southern’s Law Center or Southern University at Shreveport this fall, but that’s because those schools didn’t meet the student success goals required to hike costs.

The Louisiana Board of Regents accepted results Wednesday of the annual review required by the Granting Resources and Autonomy for Resources for Diplomas Act, which the state Legislature passed in 2010 to give schools the ability to raise tuition if they met certain performance measures based largely on student success. Detailed reports for each college are due to the Governor’s Office by July 15.

Universities and community colleges that meet their yearly goals can increase tuition by up to 10 percent. Those who don’t can’t, and they lose 15 percent of their overall state funding.

Last year, all of the colleges and universities met the performance targets. The three Southern University System colleges were the only three that failed to pass muster this year.

The law measures several dozen benchmarks based mostly on student success, including improved graduation and retention rates.

Board of Regents Chairman Clinton W. “Bubba” Rasberry said he hopes that the SU System Board of Supervisors will work with Regents staff “to develop a plan to strengthen performance, even during these times of financial distress.”

“I’m hopeful that the three institutions can begin to improve their performance,” he said.

Rasberry noted that this year was the first time in six years that the Legislature didn’t cut funding for higher education, so there is some “stability” for schools.

“Our institutions are a mere shadow of their former selves and at least one has declared financial exigency,” he said of the cuts that schools have faced in recent years.

For the three already cash-strapped Southern University campuses, it means that they will have less money than they anticipated. During a recent SU System Board of Supervisors meeting, Vice President for Finance and Business Affairs Kevin Appleton told the board that the system has been propping up its budget by depleting its reserves.

The Southern University Law Center tried to argue for the ability to increase tuition during the Regents meeting Wednesday, but the appeal failed.

Law Center Chancellor Freddie Pitcher Jr. said the law school’s budget will be adversely affected — both through the inability to increase tuition and the loss of 15 percent of state funding.

The Legislature gave the law school an additional $1.5 million this year to address accreditation concerns, but he said it wasn’t then known that the school would not meet the GRAD Act’s requirements.

“We thought we had passed it,” he said.

Board member Roy Martin said the Regents don’t have leeway to grant exceptions to schools, and other schools are meeting the benchmarks, including LSU’s Law Center.

“Relief for one would be unfair to others,” Martin said.

Pitcher said that the school gives many underprivileged students an opportunity to become lawyers but is “penalized by having this kind of mission.”

“All of this will hinder our progress,” Pitcher said.

Southern University Law Center’s bar passage rate drug down its student success score. About 42 percent of students passed the bar exam on the first try in 2013 — a drop from 56 percent the year before.

Pitcher said the decrease was due to changes to the bar exam that led to fewer students passing on the first try.

“The bar situation is really the Achilles’ heel here,” he said.

LSU’s Law Center also saw its first-time pass rate fall from 88 percent in 2012 to 77.6 percent last year, but that still surpasses what’s required.

Pitcher said Southern law school faculty met “all day” Tuesday to focus on bar passage.

“We are out to change what’s happening,” he said. “Our goal is definitely to increase our bar passage.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .