Trend of higher ed cuts, tuition raises ‘needs to be reversed,’ NCAA head Mark Emmert says

As the state has grappled with repeated budget shortfalls over nearly a decade, LSU and other Louisiana colleges and universities have seen their state funding slashed dramatically, and they’ve raised tuition rates significantly to help make up the difference.

That trend in higher ed—which also has emerged in plenty of other states—needs to change, NCAA President Mark Emmert says.

“I don’t know what the right outcome is, but I know we’ve got to find some way to rebalance this ratio of investment,” Emmert says in an interview with Business Report. “Public higher education is an extraordinary asset for a whole state, not just for the students that are there.”

Louisiana certainly isn’t alone in this trend. State funding for public two- and four-year colleges across the country is down nearly $10 billion, after adjusting for inflation, since the Great Recession, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That same report says Louisiana colleges and universities have seen their per-student state funding slashed by more than 30% since 2008, while tuition rates have skyrocketed upward by more than 60%.

Emmert, the NCAA’s president since 2010, understands that money is tight and that legislatures, universities and colleges will continue to have difficult decisions to make. But public higher education must become a higher priority for every state, he says.

“It’s a public good that the whole nation and each state and each community enjoys the benefit of,” he says. “We need to treat it as such instead of just a private good that can be sold at the highest price. That’s not what the intention ever was, and certainly that trend needs to be reversed.”

The issue in Louisiana is of particular pertinence to Emmert, who led LSU as its chancellor from 1999 to 2004 and still maintains some close ties here. He says it “hurts” him to see the financial difficulties the university has endured.

“It’s still the same wonderful university,” he says. “I’m very proud of what’s going on there. All told, it’s been fun to watch from a distance. Every once in a while I feel guilty I’m not there to help with the heavy lifting.”

The shift in burden from states to universities and students has gone “about as far as it possibly can” and will have broader implications than college affordability, Emmert says.

“The economic hardship that’s being put onto students and their families has now really become a fundamental problem not just for the families, but for the economy,” Emmert says. “When you look at the mountain of student debt that’s out there, it’s impacting job decisions young men and women make. It’s impacting whether they can afford homes. It’s reached a crisis point.”

Emmert spoke to Business Report ahead of a lecture he will give at LSU on Sept. 29, hosted by the Ogden Honors College. The lecture, titled “Leadership in Challenging Times,” will focus on leadership, higher education, college athletics and even a little politics. The lecture is free and open to the public. Emmert will speak as LSU’s inaugural Brian and Barbara Haymon Distinguished Visiting Professor.

Emmert says he is “thrilled” to be returning to Baton Rouge. He says he still frequently visits Louisiana for both business and personal reasons, but hasn’t been on campus in a while.

“I think it’s going to be, first of all, a lot of fun,” Emmert says. “Anytime I’m around students I like it a lot.”

Emmert, of course, doesn’t just keep up with the business or academic sides of LSU. He still keeps tabs on the athletic teams when possible, particularly football.

Emmert, though, declined to comment specifically on the Les Miles drama from last November, only saying he knows from personal experience how difficult it can be when a university football team struggles.

“It’s always something that brings out passion in every direction,” he says. “You certainly see it in the LSU community because they care so much about the Tigers and their success. I’ve been there when we won a championship, and I’ve been there when we weren’t doing well. I know the difference.”

Business Report will have a full Q&A with Emmert in its Sept. 27 issue, which will profile the business of sports in Baton Rouge. Get more details on his upcoming LSU lecture.

—Robert Stewart

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