Recently, Koran Addo published an article in The Advocate about the departure of Higher Education Commissioner Jim Purcell. Having spent the last several years trying to combat $700 million in cuts to higher education, Dr. Purcell decided not to renew his contract. Gov. Bobby Jindal wished Purcell the best and pointed out that graduation rates had improved despite the cuts and used LSU as an example with “... a record high of 67 percent last year, up from 58 percent in 2008.”
The relevance of this statement to the topic of cuts during the governor’s tenure is questionable at best and obscures the devastation these cuts have wrought. Six-year graduation rates track students who entered the institution as first-year students and graduated six years later. Are we to believe that the fact that students entering in 2006 have stayed the course means that reduced budgets have had no impact whatsoever?
A little background on the impact of admissions standards helps to put this in perspective. In 1988, under the leadership of Chancellor James Wharton and without any force of the Legislature, the university moved from open admissions to admissions standards driven by a college preparatory curriculum. Over the next decade, LSU increased the minimum high school GPA and ACT score four times, basing the formula on predicted graduation rates. Although enrollment dipped for several years, once higher student retention and graduation rates kicked in, LSU grew to more than 30,000 students.
The last increase was proposed to the LSU Board of Supervisors in spring 2003 for implementation in fall 2005 and was part of the LSU Flagship 2010 agenda. This proposal had a goal of reaching a 65-70 percent graduation rate comparable to our peers by requiring a minimum GPA of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale and at least a 23 ACT cumulative score. Keeping in mind that these are six-year graduation rates for students who enrolled as freshmen, according to the LSU tables, the students entering in 2006-07 under the new admission standards graduated in the 2011-12 cohort with a 66.7 percent graduation rate. The comparable 2002 rate was 60.7 percent. In other words, much of this increase was predicated on the implementation of these standards well before Jindal became governor. Furthermore, LSU has not had a 58 percent graduation rate since the 1999-2000 cohort graduated in 2006 (it was 58.9 percent).
The cuts have hurt. Just as the university was on the brink of fulfilling the Flagship Agenda and moving up in the US News’ rankings, the budget rug was pulled: no raises for faculty for four years, mid-year and annual budget cuts and increased mandated costs. The toll they have taken on programs and services has been devastating. We’ve lost superior faculty to major institutions for much higher salaries.
Programs that provide individualized student support have been gutted. It is the sheer dedication and commitment of students, faculty and staff that has kept LSU on it current path.
Laura F. Lindsay