By Lauren Heftier, LSU Manship School News Service
Higher education leaders called on legislators Wednesday to increase funding for state colleges in next year’s budget. The budget bill, proposed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, would maintain current funding for colleges, but fall about $12 million short of fully financing the popular TOPS scholarship program.
That version of the budget did not include the $119 million of additional state revenue projected by the Revenue Estimating Conference earlier that day. So lawmakers will have more money at their disposal and will face pressure from parents and students to avoid cuts to the scholarship program. Louisiana lags behind most states in re-investing in higher education, Daniel Waguespack, a House fiscal analyst, told the committee. “Remember, we’re really just now starting to stabilize higher education in the state of Louisiana,” he said.
In his opening address to the Legislature on Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards said he wanted to increase funding for higher education. Education leaders credit Edwards with stabilizing state universities after years of budget cuts by former Gov. Bobby Jindal. Public universities and community colleges across the state are still funded below the Southern Regional Educational Board average for each full-time student.
Among the 16 member states, Louisiana ranks last, according to a report by the House Fiscal Division. While the enrollment for four-year and specialized colleges has remained consistent since the fall of 2010, they still had to raise tuition and fees to pay faculty and offset rising mandated costs for pensions and other expenses that are not funded by the state, administrators said.
LSU President F. King Alexander said the LSU system had to make up $8 million in mandated costs last year. “We’re growing, expanding and succeeding, but we need your help,” Alexander said. “We need your help to help us claw back into the academic marketplace, so that we’re not losing people and that we can start at least having competitive spending with our peers. We don’t want anything more than our peers. We’d just like to be average with them, because we can outperform them.”
Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, said the state should evaluate higher education from a business perspective and make investments in education that promise a long-term return. The difficulty in retaining faculty also leads to issues like a shortage of nurses and new teachers, Abraham said.
Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed agreed with Abraham, adding that for specialized faculty in professional programs, schools are not just competing with other colleges, they are also competing against potential employers in those fields. “Anywhere an industry will pay you more than higher education, we’re competing,” Reed said.
Committee members also discussed allocating more money to technical and community colleges due to the high demand for technical jobs. UL System President Jim Henderson said that as work becomes more automated, Louisiana schools that do not adapt to changing industries will not be able to keep up. That would impact the state’s economy as well as its universities, he said. “We are so far behind when it comes to having a competitive, educated populace, that when these advances in technology continue, we’re going to be non-competitive,” Henderson said.