Future Of Higher Ed Major Challenge For Next Governor

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Rising tuition costs, departing faculty, and larger class sizes. Louisiana's next governor will have his hands full when it comes to addressing the future of higher education in the state.

         Louisiana's colleges and universities have been hit by repeated budget cuts in recent years, leading many to question whether the state will have enough graduates to fill jobs. But the question facing the next governor is where funding will come from and how colleges and universities should best use it.

         "No matter what, the next governor is going to have to do something in higher ed," said Barry Erwin, who heads the Council for a Better Louisiana in Baton Rouge, a nonpartisan think tank that monitors education issues.

         Between 2008 and 2015, Louisiana support for higher education dropped by 34 percent, compared with a nationwide drop of 6 percent, according to the council. At the same time, tuition and fees went up by nearly 80 percent, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents.

         All the main candidates for governor — Republicans Scott Angelle, Jay Dardenne and David Vitter and John Bel Edwards — agree higher education has been cut too much and have vowed to make higher education a priority. All have talked about the need to free up more money for higher education.

         The problem, they say, is that so much of the state's money is already dedicated to other areas. When budget shortfalls arise, the only areas where lawmakers and the governor can make cuts are health care and higher education. All the candidates have talked about the need to re-examine how budget money is allocated and what's protected from cuts and scaling back tax breaks to generate new money for higher education.

         Educators have been meeting with the candidates to push their message that higher education shouldn't be looked at as an expense, but as an investment. By 2020, more than half the state's jobs will need applicants with a postsecondary degree or certificate, but only 28 percent of adults currently have that, according to the council.

         "You can't grow your economy if you can't produce the graduates. And that's what we do," said Sandra Woodley, who heads the University of Louisiana system with 90,000 students across nine institutions.

         But finding the money won't be easy, with the state likely facing another shortfall next year after ending the most recent budget year at a deficit.

         "Odds on next year is going to be even worse from what we're hearing," said Erin Cowser, head of governmental affairs at Southeastern Louisiana University, a school of 15,600 students in Hammond.

         Joseph C. Rallo, the commissioner of higher education, said he's been told by heads of different schools that faculty with a lot of opportunities — science or technology, for example — are getting poached.

         Students have rallied in the capital against cuts, such as University of New Orleans sophomore Ernijah Carter. He said many of his classmates from last year have since begun attending less-expensive community colleges: "A lot of them just couldn't pay for it."

         But some say more money isn't the only problem, and they'll be looking to the next governor to make changes to how the system is run.

         Stephen Waguespack, who heads Louisiana's leading business lobbying group, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said state colleges and universities need more autonomy to deal with issues like buying supplies. He said the Board of Regents needs to scrutinize college programs with low retention or graduation rates or that duplicate programs found at similar institutions nearby — steps Rallo says they're already taking.

         Schools and universities have sometimes relied on classes that keep students enrolled rather than preparing them for the work force, said Waguespack.

         Under the next governor, the organization would like to see additional dollars for higher education go to programs designed to fill high-demand jobs like computer science and construction specialties, similar to the 2014 Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund introduced by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

         The WISE fund was well-received by colleges and business at a time when the state faces acute worker shortages in manufacturing and petrochemical industries. But it has struggled to get enough money in only its second year.


         Here's what each candidate has to say about the future of higher education:


— Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle: Angelle says Louisiana had unfairly cut higher education funding and needs to get its fiscal house in order. Because so much of the state's revenue is already dedicated, it leaves only higher education and health care as areas to cut: "With every dedication, we need to ask ourselves, 'Is this more important than health care or education?'" He wouldn't support efforts to shut down colleges to save money but would instead focus on making the current ones more successful. Angelle also frequently talks about the need to focus on community and technical college programs and skills training.


— Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne: He said he does not have a "magic number" on how much higher ed money should come from state support and how much from tuition and fees but said it should be at more of an equilibrium. Most money now comes from tuition and fees. He said he would put more money in higher education, even if it means taking money from other areas of the state's general fund. But he said the state needs to stabilize its budget long term. He said there's room for colleges and universities to cut programs, and he supports efforts to eliminate duplication of programs. But he dismissed the idea of closing campuses.


— Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards: Calling the higher education situation a "crisis," Edwards says many of the state's best students are going out of state. He said he'll hold the line on tuition increases to get back to a level where 50 percent of higher ed funding comes from the state general fund and 50 percent from tuition and fees. Edwards, who argued strongly against an earlier proposal by Gov. Bobby Jindal to merge two New Orleans universities, said he's not open to campus closures to cut costs.


— Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter: He said the state needs wholescale budget and tax reform to cut programs it can't afford and get rid of credits, exemptions and deductions that aren't growing the economy. Those steps would help stabilize and restore funding for higher education. He's also proposed a commission to streamline higher education and look at questions of how colleges and universities can do things more efficiently. For example, he said the Shreveport-Bossier area has four different nursing programs at four different schools. While the state needs all those nursing jobs, he said it doesn't need four sets of overhead.

         – by AP Reporter Rebecca Santana




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