Just a year ago, Gov. Bobby Jindal and higher education officials were announcing a new initiative to try and direct more investment into high-demand job training for the petrochemical, engineering and manufacturing industries.
The governor and Louisiana Legislature dumped $40 million into the newly created Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy (WISE) fund, which Louisiana higher education institutions would use to attract private investment for certain types of job training and education.
Jindal spent a lot of time promoting WISE in 2014. For example, he held a press conference at Baton Rouge Community College four months ago to tout the first private partner to donate matching money to the fund.
“This is a tremendous step forward for the financial recovery of higher ed,” said Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry, former chairman of the Louisiana Board of Regents, when the creation of the WISE fund was announced last January.
Now, it appears as if the WISE fund may be scraped, as Louisiana faces a projected $384 million hole in its higher education budget next year. At least two higher education officials said the WISE fund is likely to be discontinued unless more money can be found for state colleges and universities.
“Investing in the degrees we need to meet current and future job demand is important and we will continue working to prioritize these programs, but as oil prices continue to decline we will have to make some tough decisions,” said Shannon Bates Dirmann, Jindal’s deputy communications director.
LSU had expected to use a large portion of the $14.4 million it received in WISE funding this year to hire new faculty for engineering and computer science programs. If no money is available to continue WISE in 2015-2016, LSU might put a halt to adding faculty positions in those departments as it had planned, according to F. King Alexander, LSU president and chancellor.
“WISE is certainly in jeopardy,” said Alexander, “It is a program that can’t continue if nothing changes.”
Alexander has an ongoing concern about high student-to-faculty ratios in both computer science and engineering. Last spring, he told legislators LSU’s petroleum engineering program had a faculty-to-student ratio so large that it was risking its accreditation. He had hoped to use WISE funds to address that problem, though now that might be off the table.
Retaining WISE, even in the face of major budget cuts, should be a priority for the state because the public dollars in WISE are used to bring in private investment, said Monty Sullivan, president of Louisiana’s Community and Technical College System.
“WISE is one of those items we need to talk through,” Sullivan said, in regards to the budget cuts.
Still, a $384 million cut to higher education would be the largest financial blow Louisiana’s colleges and universities has had to absorb in recent memory. Higher education officials have indicated a cut of that size might put as many as 16 campuses at risk for closing. If no new money is found for higher education, it’s hard to imagine the WISE fund survives, said some higher education officials.
“The numbers that the governor’s office has pointed to [for cuts] … definitely takes the funding out of WISE,” said Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana system.
At least one influential legislator, House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, said he intends to make every effort to keep the WISE fund in place. Funding WISE is a priority for the Speaker, who sponsored the legislation to set up the fund last year.
“I think it is very important WISE stays in place and WISE is funded,” said Kleckley.
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Julia O’Donoghue is a state politics reporter based in Baton Rouge. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jsodonoghue. Please consider following us on Facebook at NOLA.com and NOLA.com-Baton Rouge.