BY JOHN GUIDROZ
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration is preparing for a projected $1.6 billion budget shortfall, which likely means deep cuts to higher education.
One remedy being considered is stripping fi nancing of the $40 million Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy (WISE) Fund, which would help colleges and universities afford to expand programs in high-demand work fi elds like engineering, computer science and business.
Sowela Technical Community College Chancellor Neil Aspinwall said they had planned to receive about $1.2 million from the WISE fund, “a great shot in the arm” to quickly get new programs running. And while talks of cutting the fund does cause some concern, he said he remains hopeful that the fund will not be stripped entirely.
“I don’t think it’ll go away,” Aspinwall told the American Press Thursday. Aspinwall said Sowela “has always been accustomed to lean budgets.”
“This is not anything new to us,” he said. “We haven’t spent any of this money yet. So it’s not like we’re losing anything.”
Last September, the WISE Council agreed to divvy up the funding, with the Louisiana Community and Technical College System getting about $12 million.
Aspinwall said Sowela “made some major plans” in anticipation of receiving WISE fund money. Those plans included expanding introductory process technology classes in DeRidder; adding a program to train people to test wells at the industrial facilities; starting a new lab analyst program and expanding the school’s welding program.
Without the WISE funding, he said it would be challenging to expand programs and accept more students at Sowela, something that is necessary “as the economy grows and jobs open up.” As the student population grows, so does the need for student services, like counseling and financial aid.
Because enrollment has grown, Aspinwall said Sowela has more tuition revenue. He said there are plans to expand some of the growing programs. About 3,500 students were enrolled at Sowela in the fall of 2014.
“We can’t turn those students away, because that will kill our program,” he said.
One of the latest possible remedies to keep the WISE fund in place calls for using disaster recovery money from hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Aspinwall said he has heard reports that this funding would maintain at least $30 million with the fund. However, he said there are strings attached with using that type of money.
“Much of the money has to be used only for areas of the state that were affected by the storms,” Aspinwall said. “Also, a major amount of the funds has to be used for disadvantaged students. That would knock a lot of colleges out for using the money.”
Aspinwall said there is “a lot of speculation” regarding how large of a cut higher education will take this year. But, right now, he said he is not afraid of the projections.
“No one has told me that Sowela’s budget will be cut,” he said. “Right now, we are just focusing on our growth and the economic development in this area.”