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Some in LA higher education their own worst enemies

Often in this state, elements of higher education become its own worst enemy, indicated by a tantrum thrown concerning the adverse impact of budget cuts on Louisiana’s colleges and universities that will only turn off the public even more about their plight.

Last month, the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration was handed the unpleasant news that before the end of this month constitutionally it would have to axe $248 million from current year spending. Because of the fiscal structure of the state’s spending of its own revenues, the largest absolute hit happens to health care, but the largest proportional hit goes to higher education. Added to previous reductions for the same reason, higher education has now gone from a $1.4 billion budget a couple of years ago to about $1.15 billion.

It would have been worse without the federal spending bill passed last year, and part of that law which allowed money to be used for higher education also has a provision that says support levels for higher education can’t go below 2006 levels. Projected cuts of $84 million this time would put the state $60 million below, thus to proceed a waiver from the federal government – already successfully obtained by two other states – must be granted.

But the president of the Louisiana State University Baton Rouge Faculty Senate, Kevin Cope, has called for a letter-writing campaign for the federal government to reject any such request. (For the uninitiated, university faculty senates essentially are debating societies of elected faculty representatives that are presumed to reflect views of faculty members which may provide opinions to the actual administrators of the institution, but which have no governance powers.) Commissioner of Administration AngĂ©le Davis called such a request “irresponsible” because one alternative of a refused waiver would be to pay back spending bill money that went to higher education, creating even more drastic cuts in that area.

There are two reasons why higher education is under the gun in Louisiana. One is that fiscal structure which needs to be changed. With nearly 400 protected areas of spending, some that have next to nothing to do with genuine state functions, much more flexibility has to be brought to the system so that higher education bears proportionally less of reductions and can have more dollars diverted to it. Jindal attempted to get the Legislature to go along with this idea last session but did not cajole the majority needed even to set up a schedule to review and possibly change this funding over four years.

The second reason relates to the first and explains why Jindal failed: higher education has done a poor job of showing where the citizenry is getting value for its taxes – in part because statistics and common sense reveal that can be a difficult argument to make. As noted elsewhere, the problem isn’t that Louisiana appropriates too little for higher education – the state ranks 10th among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia on that account. Nor is it that tuition is too low – there, it ranks 32nd. But one major problem is that the state has the sixth-most number of community and technical colleges and the eighth-most baccalaureate-and-higher institutions for a state that ranks 23rd in total population, causing per capita enrollment figures to be 47th.

As everybody knows, the state is overbuilt in higher education. It also is forced to use resources inefficiently in provision of the state’s charity hospital system under the LSU system’s guidance, where reform would remove LSU from that business and end up stretching tax dollars further. Of course, that is the other area hit badly by cuts, health care, so if the waiver exemption request was rejected, the other alternative for the state would be to slice even more out of health care overwhelmingly serves the poor and disabled. Let’s see, petition to save the jobs of college professors who average over $50,000 in annual salary and as a result cut even more services to the indigent and handicapped – that’s really going to convince the taxpaying public many of whom don’t earn as much as the professoriate and some of whom use those health services to rally behind people they will increasingly see as spoiled brats trying to save their own, some being rather cushy, jobs.

If Cope and his ilk had any political sense and viewed the situation realistically, they would throw support behind at least three reforms. First, they would campaign for the suggestion made by the Postsecondary Education Review Commission to give university systems to improve performance by 2014 or else face consolidation, downgrading, and/or closure of campuses. Second, they would lobby the state to realign indigent health care to get the LSU system in particular and higher education in general out of its provision to become only a trainer of health care professionals. Third, they would stump for raising both admissions standards at state schools to end the farce of virtually-open admissions that many schools have – often bringing in unprepared students that waste theirs and the state’s time and efforts on them – and raise the standards to qualify for a Taylor Opportunity Program Scholarship which now has discouragingly minimal standards by which to qualify, setting up another situation where money gets wasted on students not prepared and/or committed to obtaining higher education.

Don’t hold your breath waiting on this brand of lobbying. Unfortunately, for many in higher education it’s more about looking out after their own interests than the taxpayers’. Fortunately, state university administrations seem to be waking up to the facts of life and seem increasingly ready to take the bold steps necessary to convince the public that money is being well-spent. Otherwise, as one of their lobbyists said, the impression that the public and legislators will get from Louisiana higher education is it “is still fat.”


chloe said...


I'm a student at LSU in Baton Rouge, and this kind of plain language explanation of what is happening and why is what most students should be reading right now. Thank you for writing this.


Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Anonymous said...

you've got it right. thank you.

--LSU doc candidate.