Louisiana’s public colleges do a poor job in being transparent, keeping students in school through graduation and ensuring access for low-income students, a national report says.
But it goes on to say the state does a good job incentivizing colleges to perform better and making it easy for students to transfer between schools.
State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell largely agreed with the report Thursday, calling it “fairly accurate,” but noting that some of the data, which tracked student progress for nearly a decade, doesn’t reflect newer initiatives the state has since put in place.
“There is a need for improvement,” Purcell said. “I think the policy and political folks agree on that.”
Barry Erwin, president of the higher education watchdog Council for a Better Louisiana, said Louisiana is generally on the right track in emphasizing student retention and completion.
“That is the overarching goal. We have a population that is not educated as well as it should be,” Erwin said.
The report by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, assigns letter grades to states and their public two- and four-year universities in different categories.
Louisiana got one A and one F with mostly average or below-average grades in between. The F grade was assigned to the state’s four-year schools in the “Student Access and Success” category, which measures the ability to retain and graduate students within a “reasonable” amount of time and also grades the level of access low-income students have to public colleges and universities.
The report says Louisiana’s four-year schools rank in the bottom 10 states in the nation in student retention and completion. Two-year schools were given a C grade.
Purcell said the low score for four-year schools can be traced back to the youth of Louisiana’s community college system, which is less than a decade old.
When much of the data was collected, the state’s regional four-year colleges had lower admissions standards and offered more remedial classes than their out-of-state peers, Purcell said. They were essentially functioning as community colleges, he added.
Also, the cohort researchers studied for the Student Access and Success measure predated higher admission standards that kicked in in 2006, Purcell said.
Ideally, those students should’ve been enrolled within the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, which “really grew up” between 2007 and 2008, Purcell said.
“I think with the new admissions requirements and the expansion of the community college system, those ratings will go higher,” Purcell said.
Since 2000, the state has been pushing to enroll 60 percent of its students in community colleges with the remainder enrolling in four-year institutions, Purcell said. The state is at about 50-50 now, he said.
Regarding the failure to ensure access for low-income students, Purcell said he was unclear exactly how researchers collected their information, but said he would like to expand need-based state scholarships to help students offset the cost of attending college.
Federal need-based Pell Grants paid 70 percent of student expenses in the 1970s, but cover just 40 percent today, Purcell said.
Reversing that trend won’t be easy, he said.
The state got an A grade in the “Policy Environment” category for a law that ties 15 percent of state funding to colleges on student performance and institutional efficiency.
The A grade also took into account the ease with which students are able to transfer course credits from one institution to another.
The poor showing in student retention and completion, contrasted with the high score for higher education policy, is a function of the “data lagging behind the initiatives,” said Meg Casper, Louisiana Board of Regents associate commissioner of public affairs.
“It means we’re going in the right direction,” Purcell added.