Regular review and assessment of our higher education enterprise – especially by third parties – is healthy and welcome, but conclusions that are strictly based on graduation rates fail to present a fuller, current picture of Louisiana’s higher education system. The facts are that 52 percent of the over 10,000 students who earned undergraduate degrees at University of Louisiana System schools last year were not counted in graduation rates. This is because the national graduation rate definition is limited to first-time, full-time freshmen who enter college in the fall. It does not count part-time students, transfer students, those who start in the spring, or those who take longer than normal to graduate. Further, it does not include graduate students – over 2,200 of whom received advanced degrees from UL System schools in 2009/10.
That is not to say that a graduation rate is not a valid measurement – it is – but it is a limited one at best, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Nevertheless, our universities have made tremendous strides in raising graduation rates starting with increasing admission standards system-wide in 2005 and again in 2010. As graduation rates are a six-year calculation, we will not see the benefits of these increased standards until 2011 and then 2016. As well, further enhancements to this measure are expected as a result of additional admission standards that the Board of Regents has put into place for 2012 and 2014.
Prior to 2005, most UL System schools operated as open-admissions institutions, as specified by the Louisiana Board of Regents. Before the recent creation of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System and seven new community colleges, most of our UL System schools served dual roles in administering two-year and four-year degrees. We had to be all things to all people. The graduation rate data on which the conclusions in the report draw from are essentially based on this pre-admission standards era.
However, Louisiana is now moving in the right direction. The community college system is growing, admission standards are rising, and our colleges and universities are working together to enroll, retain and graduate students. Enrollment in postsecondary education is up statewide, and the enrollment mix between two-year and four-year schools (now 35%/65%, up from 16%/84% in 2000) is approaching the southern average (48%/52%). A statewide two-year to four-year transfer degree guarantee was recently implemented and our institutions have embraced the Louisiana GRAD Act which enacts performance expectations and incentives to increase student performance. Both of these significant events mean that our colleges and universities are better positioned to meet state and regional needs and improve competitiveness, effectiveness and efficiency.
A recent report by the Southern Region Education Board on improving college completion titled, “No Time to Waste,” outlines 10 recommendations for improving student success. Louisiana has already implemented to various degrees all 10 recommendations – progress made evident by Louisiana ranking fifth best in the nation for improvement in graduation rates by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
The impact of recent changes to Louisiana higher education policy regarding increasing accountability and performance will soon be evident, and we welcome an objective analysis of Louisiana postsecondary education.