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Monday, Feb. 1, 2016

Higher Ed Cuts

Budget crisis causes education to suffer

Last week, the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce hosted state lawmakers, higher education leaders and community leaders who gathered to discuss the implications of another major cut in state funding to state higher education systems.

It’s become something of a regular event to reduce state funding to higher education systems. This time, cuts are proposed to help close a $750 million mid-year state budget hole – another disturbingly regular event in Louisiana. Under the current proposition, the LSU system could see up to $65 million in cuts; the Southern University system would suffer a $7.4 million reduction; the University of Louisiana system a $38.04 million cut; and the state’s Community and Technical College System, $20.2 million less.

As noted by the panelists at last week’s gathering, it’s not just a college or university that would suffer the critical and perhaps devastating impacts of reducing staff and faculty by half, or ending programs, or losing students – it’s the entire state of Louisiana.

This constant erosion of funding is becoming habitual – a circumstance that should compel all of us to call for a halt to undermining our state’s higher education systems in favor of a serious undertaking to decide whether Louisiana wants competitive, premier higher education that provides higher education opportunities right here at home at a reasonable cost.

For those looking for a starting point in this conversation, a couple of articles in the Jan. 24 edition of The Advocate are recommended reading.

The first is “Are There Too Many Universities in Louisiana?” Thoughtful and informative, it opens with an observation with which many right here in north Louisiana can identify.

From writer Emily Crisp: “Barely 350,000 people live in northeast Louisiana. But drive the lonesome 30-mile stretch of highway from Monroe to Grambling and you will pass three public universities, all offering degrees in everything from kinesiology to music to world languages.”

The article includes a graphic titled “University Glut” and notes in part, “Louisiana has 14 four-year universities – more than Florida, which has a population four times’ Louisiana’s size.”

After reading this piece, one would not be criticized for wondering if maybe some consolidation considerations might figure into better fiscal management of state higher education costs.

But then, a reading of The Advocate’s companion special report, “How Louisiana Slashed College Aid and Left Students to Pick Up the Tab,” generates a whole new slew of questions about how Louisiana’s leadership views higher education.

It’s a comprehensive and informative piece that includes several notable statistics, but a couple in particular that should concern anyone interested in Louisiana being viewed above that of a third world nation.

“To make up for lost money, Louisiana has lifted tuition and mandatory attendance fees faster than any other state over the past five years. At the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, mandatory fees and tuition have shot up by 140 percent since Jindal took office, going from $3,430 to $8,244 per year … Louisiana was one of only six states to see a decrease in university enrollment between 2009 and 2014, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.”

These are not favorable distinctions for Louisiana. The fate of Louisiana’s higher education systems – and how we view where those institutions are headed in fiscal ability to plan for and prioritize progressive and productive futures – say much about the value Louisianans place on these significant economic engines.

The next state budget crisis is just a couple of months down the road. And if we believe $131 million in higher education cuts in the face of a mid-year $750 million state budget deficit is seriously damaging to higher ed, just what might be the implications to higher ed of the projected $1.9 billion state budget shortage for next year?

Marty Carlson, a freelance writer, has been covering local news for the past 17 years. She can be reached via email at martycarlson1218@ gmail.com.

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