Once again the state budget is in crisis. With plummeting oil prices exacerbating what was already a dire situation, the projected shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is now more than $1.6 billion. And it could still get worse.
The state’s colleges and universities are on the chopping block once more. With no constitutional protection, they are facing cuts of as much as $400 million next year. The heads of all four university systems in the state—why we need four systems is, perhaps, part of the problem—have been told to prepare for budget cuts of between 35% and 40%.
At LSU’s flagship campus in Baton Rouge, Chancellor and President King Alexander has put together a doomsday budget for next year that is $60 million down from this year’s. Should such an anemic budget actually become reality, Alexander predicts the university would lose 300 faculty members, $130 million in research dollars that would follow them and 500 graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, programs.
The University’s AgCenter would be hit particularly hard. The center’s research and extension programs—which, one should not forget, are part of the mission of a land grant university—might not be able to hang on if the threatened cuts materialize. The center is heavily dependent on state appropriations because it basically has no other source of revenues, and over the last seven years its budget has already been cut by more than $22 million. Next year, it’s looking at another $22 million.
“It would impact 4H, parish offices around the state, campus departments,” says Bill Richardson, LSU Vice President for Agriculture and dean of the College of Agriculture. “In seven years we’ve gone from $90 million to $40 million. That’s what makes this so painful.”
The Pennington Biomedical Research Center also is in the crosshairs. Senate President John Alario has said the prestigious research institution could be forced to shut down. Meanwhile, Gov. Bobby Jindal has said he might cut WISE, the workforce initiative program that he helped create just a year ago and touted at the time as one of the most important things the state could do to ready its underprepared workforce for the future.
We’ve heard this kind of talk before over the years, about institutions closing for good and professors packing their bags. This time, there is something chilling about it. It feels more real.
It’s also more maddening than ever because we have been here so many times before, and yet state leaders have steadfastly refused to take the difficult and politically unpopular steps needed to restructure our system of higher education to make it truly more efficient and effective. Instead of merging institutions and creating strategic alliances and centers of excellence among the many four-year colleges and universities in the state, they have left them all open to wallow in mediocrity, or worse.
Now, with so much at stake and support growing for a special session before the regular session to address higher ed and its financial woes, it’s instructive to review a few statistics.
- Only three of the state’s 14 four-year colleges and universities have a six-year graduation rate of better than 50%: LSU A&M at 73%, Louisiana Tech University at 55%, and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette at 50%. (Six-year graduation rates seem a silly way to calculate the success of four-year institutions, but that’s the way the federal government does it.)
- The average graduation rate statewide is 48%, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents, though a slightly different set of statistics from the Chronicle of Higher Education puts the figure at just 39%. The national average is 58%.
- LSU Alexandria’s six-year graduation rate is fewer than one in four. Southern University at New Orleans’ is one in 10.
Granted, graduation rates tell only part of the story, but other statistics are worth mulling.
- Louisiana has 14 four-year colleges and universities for a statewide population of 4.5 million. Alabama has 13 for a population of 5 million. Mississippi has eight for its nearly 3 million residents. While those aren’t huge differences, we’re still on the heavy side.
- The distance from the University of Louisiana at Monroe to Louisiana Tech in Ruston is just 36 miles. From Tech to LSU Shreveport is fewer than 70.
- The distance from McNeese State University in Lake Charles to ULL is 77 miles.
- The distance from SUNO to the University of New Orleans is about 3 miles.
In the short term, closing campuses that underperform won’t achieve the necessary savings. But long term, it’s time for state lawmakers and higher ed officials themselves to engage in some serious conversations about how to make better use of the limited dollars available, not just find band-aid solutions on the revenue side of the ledger.
It’s not just about money, incidentally. Another statistic worth noting is that Louisiana spends roughly $62,700 for each student who completes a four-year institution. Though that puts us in the bottom half of the nation, it’s more than Florida or Texas spends per student, and their statewide graduation rates are much higher than ours.
In other words, we finally have to get smart about solving a problem that has plagued the state since the 1980s. Maybe things are bad enough this time state leaders will be forced to make real and substantive changes.
If history is any indication, the odds aren’t likely they will. But, as the data suggests, what we’re doing now isn’t working.