Where’s the Sense of Urgency on Higher Education?

Whatever happens in terms of revenue during the current special session, it seems like higher education is going to end up on the short end of the stick again. At least that’s what it feels like right now.

The Legislature has revenue measures still in play that would restore around half of the $600 million in cuts that are made in the budget for the coming fiscal year. But most of the discussion about restoring cuts has revolved around TOPS and hospitals. You hear very little about higher education.

That’s disconcerting because it’s hard to find a state that anyone would consider worse off than Louisiana when it comes to higher education funding. Data provided by the systems indicate that Louisiana had the highest percentage drop of per student state funding in the country over the last eight years and that total revenue spent per student now ranks second to last.

Certainly, increases in tuition over the last several years have mitigated some of the blows, but while other states are reinvesting in their colleges and universities Louisiana has seen a net loss of total-dollar-funding of more than $350 million and there’s more on the current chopping block. The numbers seem to be a bit of a moving target but the total cuts to higher education in the current year budget seem to be in the range of another $100 million.

Now, it’s likely that lawmakers will find some way to fund a critical piece of that – $39 million for the medical schools in Shreveport and New Orleans which are in dire need of those dollars. But that still leaves some $50-$60 million in cuts to schools that few legislators seem to be talking about. That’s extremely disconcerting.

As higher education officials rightfully point out, all of this comes at a time when expectations for our institutions remain high. We want them to be drivers of the economy by offering high-quality programs in high-demand fields. We expect them to meet our workforce needs and be leaders in research and innovation. And at the same time we want them to attract Louisiana students and support them in ways that improve graduation rates and other measures of student achievement.

It’s hard to do that while in many ways they are effectively being starved and charging students more money for lower returns on their investment. And students and parents are beginning to figure that out, too. More and more in informal gatherings you hear parents wondering whether it’s a disservice to send their high-performing high school kids to a Louisiana university when their TOPS is threatened, the quality of our schools is questioned and out-of-state universities are recruiting them with many more enticements than we have to offer.

To meet our future workforce needs we need to be a recruiting state ourselves. We need to bring in bright young students from other states who can enroll in our various STEM programs and fill the growing number of technology jobs we are finally creating. Instead, we are putting up barriers and giving our own kids more and more reasons to go elsewhere.

Year after year there has been a hope, and to some degree, an expectation that the cuts to higher education would finally come to an end – that our schools would get to some baseline bottom and then finally find the stability that would allow them to rebuild. But the sense of urgency one used to sense at the Legislature to address the plight of higher education seems to have diminished.

What that says about a state with some of the lowest educational attainment rates in the country is discouraging. It’s not too late to do something about that, but, sadly, the time is running out.