A ‘radical’ idea for difficult times? Education leaders float idea of privatizing some public universities



A ‘radical’ idea for difficult times? Education leaders float idea of privatizing some public universities

graduate cap and golden confetti

graduate cap and golden confetti

Jindal’s budget suggests $211M higher ed cut

Years of deep cuts to state funding for Louisiana’s colleges and universities — and the threat of even further reductions in the near future — have some leaders looking at drastic measures that could change the face of Louisiana higher education.

One idea that has recently been floated: Why not encourage some of the state’s public schools to go private?

The idea, which experts agree is radical and may not ever be feasible, came up during a recent meeting of the state Board of Regents, a group appointed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose administration has led the charge for recent state budgets that have left Louisiana with some of the nation’s most severe cuts to higher education funding. Regents board members have instructed state higher education staff members to examine the concept and report back on whether the plan would work and what it would take.

“You look at some areas of the state, there may be a university or a college inside of a university that could do better as a private entity,” Board of Regents Chairman Roy Martin said in a follow-up interview with The Advocate.

Martin stressed that he was speaking as an individual, not for the board.

Board of Regents member Bill Fenstermaker, who first brought up the idea during the recent board meeting, questioned whether the state could give colleges their buildings and campuses in exchange for severing state funding ties.

“I would think we ought to look at this at least,” he said. “I know this is radical, and it changes maybe some of the model, but it also could free up a lot of money for the other institutions.”

In a follow-up interview, Fenstermaker, too, stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of the board and was just trying to float creative suggestions amid widespread budget concerns.

“It may be that when they look at it, it’s not a very good idea,” he said. “I don’t even have a position right now, but I’d like to see the Board of Regents ferret it out.”

The Jindal administration’s budget recommendation for the coming year calls for a $211 million hit to higher education. That figure relies heavily on a tax credit scheme that is not set in stone and has already drawn backlash from the business community, though. If that plan doesn’t work out, the cut could balloon to a devastating $567 million — about 78 percent of the state’s funding for higher education.

“I think looking at the sheer magnitude of these proposed cuts really represents a dismantling of the state’s public higher education system. There’s no other way to put it,” said Daniel Hurley, associate vice president for state policy at the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

A group of political scientists discussed the dire situation during a meeting in Lafayette over the weekend — just a day after the budget’s release.

“I will call it a crisis,” said Ed Chervenak, a professor at the University of New Orleans.

But it’s a story that has become familiar for higher education here. Louisiana has cut per-student funding more than any other state since 2008.

“All of us on the Board of Regents, we’re trying to make it work any way we can,” Fenstermaker said. “I don’t see it getting better. I just hope we can do something to protect and preserve higher education in this state.”

Louisiana is home to one of the nation’s few universities that has successfully transitioned from public to private status. Though it was 130 years ago, both Martin and Fenstermaker mentioned Tulane University in New Orleans in discussing the privatization model.

Elsewhere, the University of Maryland’s University College reportedly has weighed privatization recently, and Wisconsin, facing its own possible $300 million cut to higher education funding in the coming year, is moving toward some private-like ideas at the urging of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who, like Jindal, is considering a run for president in 2016.

Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the state’s share of higher education funding in Louisiana has made up a shrinking piece of the overall funding pie for some time.

“The colleges and universities are financing what they do now more on the backs of their students and donors. On the backs of other people,” he said.

Hurley said state disinvestment in higher education is on a 30-year national trend that was exacerbated in the most recent decade.

“Certainly there were some dramatic cuts during and after the Great Recession,” he said. “However, the vast majority of states have begun the process of reinvestment in higher education.”

Hurley said the latest idea being floated — encouraging state schools to go private — is radical and rare.

“It’s a rather extreme concept,” he said. “Traditionally in this country, public higher education has been publicly funded, good for all the state’s citizens to have access to. When you’re talking about privatizing higher education … that, I think, anyone would argue is not good for the health of any economy or society.”

Fewer options for public, subsidized education would mean higher costs and fewer options for low-income and some middle-class families, he argued.

The leaders who are talking privatization see it as an alternative to school closures or mergers, which have been the fear as the state continues to pare back funding.

Chervenak noted that even Florida, a state with a population nearly five times that of Louisiana, has fewer four-year public universities than Louisiana.

But he said closures are still costly and politically difficult — colleges often are points of pride for areas and economic centers. Legislators who feel the threat to their area are unlikely to go along with plans.

“I think it often costs more money to do that than go along with the status quo,” Chervenak said. “It becomes a financial and political difficulty.”

College and university system leaders are pushing for more autonomy — a less severe step toward a privatization, of sorts. Across the country, schools have done this in exchange for less funding from the state, Hurley noted.

“Certainly, the institutions will need tremendous flexibility if these cuts were to be realized,” he said, noting that another key component would be creating a financial aid system to help students who can’t afford the additional fees.

Cross also noted how restrictive state government can be in higher education — including setting arbitrary numbers of employees that a campus can have.

“It’s really outrageous, and it doesn’t answer anything,” he said. “Maybe being private would be better.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.