- Higher education in Louisiana is underfunded. By now the statistics should be familiar to anybody attentive about the issue, whether using statistics of a few years ago or more recent ones: in fiscal year 2009, Louisiana ranked seventh nationally in per capita expenditures for higher education, indicating that this never has been a funding problem but an efficiency in spending problem.
- There has been a large reduction in higher education budgets over the past couple of years. Again, you really can’t argue this, as the $212 million in reduced state support is offset by $124 million in tuition and fee increases through the end of fiscal year 2010, so the total decline from the peak has been about 7.65 percent – not insignificant, but hardly catastrophic, at least up until now.
- Since the beginning of 2008, higher education has faced reductions totaling only $43 million. This is what might be gap including the 2010-11 tuition increases courtesy of the GRAD Act which commits schools to improve performance, but it does not take into account the unfunded mandates being passed along which the University of Louisiana System estimated typically took up much of the tuition increases until the GRAD Act came along; for example, at my institution over half of the extra tuition revenue has been offset by unfunded mandates which the Legislature has stopped covering with additional monies over those past two years.
- Tuition increases will unfairly burden students. Louisiana ranks right about the bottom third of states in tuition charged and with many states also raising theirs probably will hardly advance on this list even with GRAD Act effects, and this does not take into account that roughly 22,000 students a year qualify for Taylor Opportunity Program for Students money which pays for tuition at the estimated cost last fiscal year of about $135 million, so while many will have to pay 10 percent more, it’s easier to call this unfair to taxpayers than for students in general.
With emotions running high over the state of funding higher education in Louisiana, adding needed perspective to the issue produces a better idea what should be done, what can be done, and what is likely to get done. We begin by addressing certain myths about the funding situation for higher education:
Disregarding these myths and understanding the facts, what should be done is an extensive restructuring of higher education. Once again, the statistics here don’t lie: Louisiana has the eighth most public baccalaureate and above institutions and sixth most below baccalaureate institutions in the nation, meaning it ranks almost at the bottom of states in terms of students per institution. Further, it is a system skewed to the baccalaureate-and-above institutions whose enrollments are proportionally much higher than the national average and therefore adds an estimated $91 million more a year in delivery costs – about the budget reduction over the past two years including unfunded mandates.
In short, the system is overbuilt and top heavy. Some baccalaureate-and-above institutions need to be consolidated or converted into two-year schools, and among the technical colleges there need to be consolidations and closings as well. But this never will happen because legislators like having these institutions in their districts for the money and jobs they bring and also because alumni who help them in their campaigns (if the legislators themselves are not alumni) will threaten loss of support if any of these kinds of changes get made. Even the idea of relatively smaller savings that might come from following the lead of many states and consolidating governance systems into having just one higher education board has been fought tooth-and-nail to date.
Given this political reality, what could be done is sort of what is being done – the GRAD Act and trying to shift more students to community colleges and technical schools with overdue and delayed admission standards increases at the four-year schools, but this still falls short. TOPS standards, rather than being set at the national American College Test average, for tuition at baccalaureate institutions should be increased to make it a true scholarship program and some kind of payback required for dropouts (Louisiana ranked thirteenth in funds paid for freshmen dropouts from 2003-08) would encourage fewer marginal students to go to college and better direct students to appropriate fields of study and institutions. In addition, the state’s penchant for dedicating revenues, which would require constitutional amendments to change, skews priorities that forces higher education to be deprived of funding while less important activities automatically get money without review. Gov. Bobby Jindal would have to lead the charge to get these things implemented, including calling a special session by early 2011 to deal with the proposed amendments.
Instead, if Jindal does not exert some leadership to get these changes implemented, what is likely to happen is what is happening now – Jindal being unable to do the things at a global level to correct the problems of inefficient use of resources, so with no other choice than having to make higher education institutions cut at the margins it ends up from a public policy standpoint of treating the symptoms rather than the disease, and from a political standpoint damages him and higher education through the conflict that will ensue. For its part, Louisiana higher education has to wake up and support sensible changes (tax increases not being one) that can allow it to transition over the next several years into a more efficient deliverer of public services (although higher education does itself no favors to garner support when clownish behavior like this occurs).
The fact is, with the removal of federal spending dollars on tap, tens of millions, perhaps even more, dollars more may disappear from higher education next fiscal year. Politicians need to put aside parochial interests and make some systemic changes, while higher education has to devote its energies to pursuing realistic responses to this unfavorable environment that impair delivery the least. Inaction and whining are not options.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 08:50