My first year as an undergraduate at Jackson State University was in the wake of the 1992 landmark Fordice Supreme Court decision. Almost 20 years ago I marched in a demonstration to oppose merging Mississippi’s public universities as a way to desegregate enrollment. With firm resistance that initiative dissolved. Since that time proposals for institutional mergers that combine public historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with traditionally white state institutions occasionally pop up like unwanted weeds in a landscape that is already difficult to maintain.
In the most recent case, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal proposed a merger that would have combined Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO), which is an HBCU, with traditionally white University of New Orleans. Soon after, the governor yielded to an independent study commissioned by his office that recommended changing the governance structure of public institutions in a way that would remove SUNO from the larger, historically black Southern University System. Aside from the historical and sociopolitical turbulence this created, the proposed legislation has very little to do with solving the problems of public higher education in Louisiana.
With the help of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and others, Southern University supporters won a tough political chess match last week, defeating the measure. Some feared that this kind of merger in Louisiana, if successful, would somehow set a precedent putting public HBCUs in other states at risk. The context for these conversations must be reframed. HBCUs are not "at-risk." Instead, this case reminds us that their success is becoming ever more important for meeting the educational demands of their respective states. The signal for HBCU leaders to observe is that even in pursuing their mission HBCUs are not exempt from this environment of accountability.
According to some estimates the nation will need to produce a million new degree holders each year for the next decade in order to meet workforce demands and to remain globally competitive. The public institutions that serve greater New Orleans (the University of New Orleans, SUNO, and Delgado Community College) each rank dead last among their national peers when comparing graduation rates. None of these institutions graduate more than 21 percent of their students as calculated by the federal government. Just 2 percent of students who begin at Delgado Community College complete or transfer within three years. This is the issue that Governor Jindal (a former president of the University of Louisiana System) is trying to alleviate. There is virtue in trying to reform an underperforming higher education system, but equally important is our newfound national (and local) understanding of the economic importance of having better-educated citizens.
No one could disagree about the need to pay closer attention to improving the outcomes for students attending college in the New Orleans area. The problem is that proposals to merge HBCUs create unnecessary political hurdles and have little promise of actually improving outcomes. I liken it to bowling down the wrong lane and then getting a split. There is virtually no evidence that these kinds of mergers, born from business models, actually produce better student outcomes. And, any potential savings from combining a few administrative functions have not been associated with institutional effectiveness. A lot of time, energy, resources, and political currency have been expended on both sides of the debate and none of it has been leveraged to actually improve student success in the state.
An old friend and colleague always warns about the usefulness of arguing over seats on the Titanic. I am in no way comparing Louisiana’s higher education system to the Titanic, but I do question the focus and value of the current debate. Instead of quarreling about who should control underperforming institutions, it is worth considering what might be accomplished if Louisianans netted the energy expended over the last six months to focus intensely on student success. One could argue that no matter where the votes fell on the bills, once the political dust settles little will change this fall for the students trying really hard to pass college algebra or those seeking the financial aid they need to persist towards a degree.
For example, the 2009-2010 Louisiana budget projected $129 million dollars in appropriations for the merit-based Taylor Opportunity Programs for Students (TOPS) attending public institutions versus just $29 million for need-based grants to help low-income students pay for college. According to the state’s office of budget and planning, the LSU system, which enrolls the fewest poor and minority students among Louisiana’s public institutions, received the largest appropriation from the state ($1.49 billion). This was nearly $500 million more than the University of Louisiana System, Southern University System, and the Community College System combined, which collectively serve 100,000 more students. These seem to be better legislative priorities if the goal is improving college completion.
For the last three months I have been peppered with questions, from all angles, about the righteousness of merging HBCUs with traditionally white institutions. To be clear, I have consistently argued that it is generally a bad idea followed by the specifics given the context or particular question. HBCUs are a critically important sector of higher education. They enrich institutional diversity, which is hallmark of American higher education, and still disproportionately produce African American graduates, especially much-needed teachers, those earning degrees in the STEM fields, and those who enroll in graduate programs. HBCUs are not the problem, and the framing of this policy debate is all wrong.
According to a recent report by the American Council on Education, Louisiana is the only state in the union that experienced a decline between 2002 and 2007 in the percentage of minority students enrolled in college. Meanwhile, minority students now constitute the majority of K-12 students in public schools in the South. Neighboring states like Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama all experienced double digit-gains in minority student college enrollment during the same years.
Given this context, I wince when I see HBCU leaders and supporters working hard to validate their existence or to protect their institutions, which diverts their focus on serving students. In the same way, I am disappointed when legislators who should be finding ways to support institutions that serve high percentages of poor and minority students advance bills aimed at merging them — a pseudo-solution to the real problems.
Yes, we should hold institutions accountable for graduating students. Regulators will have it no other way in this era of accountability in higher education. Still, legislative measures intended to improve performance must consider the contextual factors and policy actions that are more likely to promote success. The institutions committed to serving the neediest students receive the fewest resources from the state. This represents what I call policy incongruence, which should be on the governor’s list of priorities, not mergers. Reorganizing institutions that will have the same faculty, the same students, the same academic programs, and disproportionate funding makes little sense especially when precious time and resources are spent arguing about how to do it.
The latest e-mail alert I received warned that the political battle in Louisiana is not yet over. The Louisiana legislative session does not end until June 23. A series of amendments, hearings, and legislative sessions are expected to continue. For the sake of the students in the Bayou, I am hoping that they soon become the true focus of debate.