PAR clarifies higher ed position
In a 2006 commentary on the legislative session, PAR stated that comprehensive structural reform for higher education had been ignored and that Louisiana operates an excessive number of higher education institutions haphazardly arranged under four independent governing boards. Last week, state Treasurer John Kennedy cited that 2006 commentary in a statement implying that PAR supports his call to eliminate three of the four system boards and transfer their power and responsibility to the Board of Regents. However, PAR’s most recent research actually proposes a different approach to improving the state’s higher education outcomes.
A series of three PAR reports published from 2007 to 2009 make 16 recommendations for reform. The four recommendations made in “Higher Education Governance Structure: Louisiana’s Options for Keeping Pace,” published in 2009, relate directly to the question of what changes need to be made to the structure of power and authority among the state’s institutions, system boards and the Board of Regents.
The report finds that there are problems with the current governance structure of the state’s public postsecondary institutions, but the solution is not to eliminate the four system boards. That degree of reorganization would be fraught with political pitfalls and legal challenges, could take years to accomplish, if it could be done at all, and would spend scarce dollars on issues that would not guarantee improved student outcomes or significant cost savings.
PAR conducted a nationwide comparison of governance structures, which shows that there is no measurable correlation between the basic organization of governance entities and successful student outcomes. What matters most is clear leadership toward strategic goals. A review of national research on higher education governance shows that most studies warn against dismantling one structure in favor of another, even when it is floundering. Major structural changes result in years of inertia as the new system is fully implemented and the new lines of authority are established. Instead, studies suggest building on the strengths of the existing system and minimizing the innate struggles between the state and the institutions.
Louisiana needs to make extraordinary gains in higher education outcomes to compete effectively in the changing global economy. Without completely dismantling the current governance structure, the following recommendations could enhance a comprehensive design for public postsecondary education in Louisiana and promote greater return on the state’s higher education investments:
- Clarify the Constitution and statutes to establish the Board of Regents as the statewide policy-setting agency for higher education with clear power and authority to enforce the master plan agenda at the system and institution levels.
- Appropriate operations funding for higher education strictly according to the formula funding calculations as defined by the Board of Regents.
- Require that ongoing development and adjustment of the new funding formula be done in a transparent and open process with input from major stakeholders.
- Conduct a comprehensive study and public debate to evaluate the merits of and barriers to consolidation or elimination of programs, institutions or management boards. The Board of Regents should recommend changes to the Legislature in time for consideration during the 2010 legislative session.
There is a strong case to be made for shifting certain institutions from one system board to another, re-focusing the mission of some institutions, eliminating programs of study and/or consolidating some of the system boards. The Postsecondary Education Review Commission is the appropriate authority to conduct the comprehensive study necessary to build the case for any of those changes. Strengthening the power of the Board of Regents as recommended by PAR research would ensure that meaningful change could be made and potential cost-savings and performance improvements could be realized.
PAR research has played an integral part in the development of the state’s higher education system over the past 60 years. The evolution of PAR’s position can be tracked through its publications, which are available for download at www.la-par.org. The latest research findings should not be overlooked as the work of the Commission on Streamlining Government and the Postsecondary Education Review Commission continues.