After Rep. Nate Bell floated his proposal to reform state lottery scholarships last week, I contacted Professor Robert Steinbuch of Little Rock’s Bowen School of Law. Steinbuch is an expert on student loan policy, and he had a great deal to say about the lottery’s financing of higher education as well.
Steinbuch generally supports the idea that we are wasting some money in higher education—that we need more accountability, and when a lottery scholarship student drops out of school, someone often should have to repay the funds to the state, with a significant caveat:
“Family calamities and medical illnesses should excuse students from repayment. And if a student flunks out while doing all the right things, he should not have to repay the money. But if the student fails to take his responsibilities seriously, causing him to flunk out, then he should repay.”
Steinbuch’s proposal, however, also adds a key element: the determination of responsibility. That is, “who is at fault for the student’s exit from school?” The student? An unforeseen circumstance? Steinbuch’s answer (at least in some cases): the school.
Steinbuch said students should be held morally responsible for repayment only if their exit from school was their fault. However, if the student is not at fault and the school essentially acted negligently by admitting an ill-prepared student, the school should be on the hook:
“The institutions should be held responsible. If a school admits a student despite clear indications that the student will not complete a degree, the institution should be required to refund the money. There are some standard predictors that schools can use to make determinations about a students’ likelihood of success, such as high school GPA & ACT/SAT score, as well as other indicators.”
Steinbuch makes a compelling argument. Essentially what we have done with state lottery scholarships is to bribe institutions of higher education with taxpayer money to accept higher numbers of students with lower prospects of educational success.
Critics of this approach to holding schools accountable will say that poor students will have ‘artificially depressed’ scores because they come from failing school districts. Therefore, this approach is discriminatory. But Steinbuch has a remedy for this as well:
“Schools should be able to absolve themselves from responsibility [for the costs] by placing these students into programs designed to address any incoming shorcomings. Then if the student still falls, the school can show that it made sufficient efforts designed to bring about success.”
Steinbuch also said he supports the idea of a “contract approach,” as Bell has proposed:
“The terms should be spelled out in advance so there are clear expectations for students.”
Ultimately, Steinbuch said, this is about responsibility. He’s right. Did the student act responsibly? Did the school? And does the state act responsibly by doling out tens of millions of dollars to students who ultimately drop out, with no programs in place to minimize these losses? ($26 million just last year, according to Rep. Bell) The answer is a resounding “no.”
We, as a state, should be promoting responsibility in all forms, particularly when the taxpayers are paying for it. Steinbuch is far from the only law professor who advocates that schools should bear some of the cost for admitting substandard students, and his proposal is a great step in that direction.