Guest column: CABL Commentary on Higher Education

Time to get serious about the budget cuts to higher education

Time to get serious about the budget cuts to higher education

It's a hard statement to make, but we might as well go ahead and say it from the outset. The cuts being proposed today in higher education, if they are implemented, will be an absolute disaster for Louisiana. Not just a disaster for schools and campuses, but for the entire state and our future prosperity.

Sure, many will say, we've heard that all before, but the fact is post-secondary education has now reached a point where it is approaching a fiscal crisis that could cause generational damage. Quite simply the time has come for us to decide what we want out of higher education – or what we don't want – make the decisions that are needed to proceed forward, and then move on. Here are just a few things to consider:

• The proposed cut to the LSU flagship institution is 28%.
• The proposed cut to Southern University is 34%.
• The proposed cut to the University of Louisiana System is 31%.
• The proposed cut to community and technical colleges is 30%.
• The proposed cut represents the 10th budget cut to higher education since 2008.
• The proposed cut will likely have at least a handful of institutions teetering on the brink of the higher education equivalent of bankruptcy.

That is unsustainable.

On top of that consider the fact that the only thing that has managed to mitigate those cuts has been increases in tuition. But that has come at a price as well:

• Louisiana has the second highest poverty rate in the nation.
• In 2008 about 60% of support for higher education came from the state and 40% from tuition. With the current proposed cut that ratio is reversed.
• Need-based financial aid available to students has remained flat. The result is that as the demand for aid continues to increase, the amount awarded to students continues to decline.

All of this while Louisiana ranks 46th in the nation for education attainment and has tremendous workforce needs that threaten economic development and the state's future.

And while there is more that post-secondary education in Louisiana can do to restructure itself, create efficiencies and improve graduation rates, it's been making significant progress.

• Today, a major part of its funding formula is based on institutional performance.
• Tuition increases are now tied to achieving performance goals.
• Admission standards are going up.
• Community college enrollment is growing and progressing toward the proper mix between two-year and four-year schools.
• Agreements are being reached to make the transition between community colleges and universities among the most seamless in the nation.
• Louisiana is spending about $1,000 less per student per year to provide them with an education, while the number of graduates is remaining constant or increasing.
• Salaries for college professors, which many think are too high, are actually the fourth lowest among the 16 schools in the southeast region.

And yet while many call for major structural change and even the closure of some universities, the Legislature has no appetite for any of that.

• Last year lawmakers rejected a proposed merger between UNO and SUNO.
• This year they rejected a proposed merger between Louisiana Tech and LSU-Shreveport.
• They also rejected some simple, straightforward changes in higher education governance that could have given the Board of Regents clearer authority to streamline and create efficiencies in the operations of post-secondary education.

Yes, it's a lot of dots, but when you connect them all, a confused picture of our expectations for higher education begins to emerge. We want change, but we don't. We want enhanced accountability, but we don't. We want performance, but we don't. We want quality, but we don't. We want a greater capacity for top-level research, but we don't. We want higher education to help drive economic development and workforce preparation, but we don't. We want higher education to be affordable to all, but we don't.

The bottom line is that sooner rather than later, we as a state must come to grips with what we want out of post-secondary education and then support it in a manner that will allow it to achieve the results we're searching for. Under any scenario, the budget cuts that are being discussed now only move us backwards.

Today, the discussion is being framed around the use of one-time money to balance the budget. That's a philosophical issue that has merit. But the real issue is about the future of our state.

At some point, we have to set some strategic priorities for Louisiana that will get us past where we are today and position us to where we want to be in the decades ahead. Having citizens that are better educated, able to meet our workforce needs, live more prosperous lives and contribute to the well-being of our state must be one of those priorities.

That's why we need to reject the massive cuts to higher education that some have been advocating and work toward a more permanent solution that is sustainable for our state and provides the quality educational opportunities our citizens so greatly need.

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