Academic standards would rule out majority of SUNO students anyway

The legacy media are finally discovering a decisive aspect of the debate about the proposed merger of Southern University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans, and one which will reshape higher education across the state. As I’ve repeatedly noted, starting in the fall of 2012, higher admission standards for all state tertiary education institutions are on the way, and with substantial consequences for SUNO in particular.

These new requirements mean, for an institution like SUNO, a new college student younger than 25 will need 19 core units in high schools, a minimum 2.0 grade point average, no remedial coursework, and a minimum of 20 on the American College Test. Two years later, a minimum on the ACT math portion of 19 and on English of 18 will be needed.

At present, such a student needs only 17.5 core units, is allowed one remedial course, and needs one of either a 2.0 overall GPA, 20 on the ACT, or graduation from the top half of his high school class. Regional schools such as SUNO can allow 10 percent of their students in without meeting those standards, but that is set to decline to 8 percent. (Note: the national ACT average is about 21, while at SUNO it is 15.5. In some high schools across the state almost no graduates qualify for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students award which requires a 20 on the ACT.)

As a result, 79 percent of SUNO students admitted in 2009 would not have qualified under the impending standards, producing 867 fewer students on campus – a drop of 29 percent of the entire student body. Do that for four consecutive years, assuming no transfer students, and maintaining its current retention rate of 46.9 percent with no dropouts after the freshman year (a reasonable approximation given that there are dropouts after the first year but that the retention rate should be higher without so many marginal students enrolled), and the student body of just over 3,000 for 2009 becomes 556 or a reduction of 83 percent.

Of course, there still can be transfer students – although those standards are going up as well – and transfers will likely increase as more attend community college and then subsequently get in to SUNO.

Nevertheless, it should be obvious the total enrollment will be substantially smaller at SUNO within a few years, perhaps half or less of what it is now.  At around 1,500 students it would be 1,000 students smaller than the next baccalaureate institution, Louisiana State University Alexandria. And it would remain a mile away in a major metropolitan area from another, much larger, baccalaureate-and-above public institution.

Can taxpayers really afford to fund the operating and infrastructure costs of a discrete four-year academic unit with these characteristics? This assessment must inform the debate over the existence of SUNO and UNO as separate institutions. (UNO’s own non-admittance rate over the new standards, which are more demanding than the ones to be imposed on SUNO, would be 27 percent of the 2009 entry or a loss of 666.)

Both institutions also could take advantage of the new standards as a trickle-down effect. Higher standards for LSU would push down some students to UNO, and from UNO to SUNO if left unmerged. Still, numbers would indicate it’s just not worth having a separate institution of higher education when a nearby alternative exists – and the graduation statistics of which don’t seem as suspect.

Backers of a separate SUNO, part of the Southern University System, try to argue that SUNO gets penalized unfairly for having so many transfer students graduate, underestimating the true performance of the school. But the stark reality is that admitting so many less-capable students regardless of whether they came in by transfer typically sets them up for failure, either by their flunking out or because they graduate while apparently not having much demanded of them.

Statistics show low ACT scorers do very poorly in GPA and graduation typically – and, according to 2007 data, the typical SUNO admitted student scores in the bottom 15th percentile or so of all ACT takers. That a substantial portion of them are awarded diplomas by SUNO makes questionable the degree of rigor of instruction there, and the value of its diploma

Another argument made by backers asserts that SUNO provides a place for non-matriculating students to take classes for professional and personal enhancement without the need for pursuit of a degree. Leaving aside the question of rigor noted above, students can accomplish the same goals in almost every circumstance by attending a community college such as Delgado or Nunez, so a baccalaureate institution should not, and does not cost effectively in comparison, provide that service.

Thus, as debate begins today and tomorrow on the merits of the merger idea in the Legislature, legislators need to understand the implications of the approaching increased admission standards. They fundamentally will make SUNO’s student body much smaller and mostly transfers, begging the question of why it should exist on a cost-effectiveness basis as a separate institution. Knowing this, a SUNO-UNO merger makes more sense than ever.

Jeffrey Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University, Shreveport. The original version of this article first appeared on Sadow’s blog, “Between the Lines.” You can also follow him on twitter.