Budget cuts at Louisiana’s public universities and colleges can’t continue: Editorial


Higher education in Louisiana is in financial trouble. After squeezing $673 million out of the budget for public colleges and universities since 2008, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration is warning of as much as $300 million in cuts for next year.

Legislators and higher education officials say the total could be closer to $380 million as the state tries to make up a projected $1.4 billion shortfall in revenues for the 2015-16 budget. With oil prices continuing to fall, that deficit could grow.

Although some legislative leaders say the final higher education cuts may not be so severe, it is unclear where they will be able to find the money to ease the pain.

To put the $300 million in perspective:

That is roughly the total budget for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System’s 13 campuses.

It is about one-third of the $975 million public operating budget for all of LSU’s academic campuses, two medical schools and research center — including tuition and federal funding.

And it is more than the $250 million the state is spending on tuition for 18,000 undergraduates in the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.

The budget cuts for next year would be spread out across all state campuses, of course, but the impact on individual institutions still would be painful.

Sen. Conrad Appel, the Metairie Republican who heads the Senate Education Committee, believes the cuts won’t end up being as steep as now predicted. But if they were, “it’s probably impossible to think we could sustain education as we know it today,” he said.

Some legislators and college officials say there are schools that could teeter toward closure. About 15 public campuses — including three in the University of Louisiana system and six in the community and technical college system — are vulnerable, officials said.

Baton Rouge Rep. Steve Carter, a Republican who is chairman of the House Education Committee, said it is too early to talk about closures. But he said there are institutions that are struggling. “We need to take a hard, long look at the mission of each institution,” he said. That is long overdue.

Gov. Jindal and legislators have patched a budget together since 2008 by using one-time money from trust funds or the sale of property and by raising tuition. Such a shortsighted approach can’t continue.

Louisiana’s leaders must find permanent solutions that will ensure that the state higher education system — every institution — is able to prepare students to compete for jobs in a global economy. Lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis wears on every institution.

F. King Alexander, LSU’s president and chancellor, told legislators last spring that the university’s petroleum engineering program had a faculty-to-student ratio so large that its accreditation was being put at risk. He has plans to hire new faculty for engineering and computer science programs, but that depends on which pools of money lawmakers cut in next year’s budget.

LSU is Louisiana’s flagship public research institution. When its president has concerns about accreditation for a program that is an indication of the breadth of the budget strain.

For residents here, the downsizing of the University of New Orleans is a major concern. The latest blow came in December when UNO’s president and chancellor recommended closing seven degree programs and eliminating the Department of Geography. The degrees being eliminated included a bachelor of science in early childhood education, the master’s and doctorate in special education, the doctorate in curriculum and instruction and graduate programs in political science.

When his proposal is fully phased in, an estimated 41 faculty and staff positions will have been eliminated.

UNO had 17,000 students before Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches. This fall, enrollment was a little more than 9,300. The continuous state budget cuts have exacerbated those losses.

The strength of our public colleges and universities — from two-year schools to doctoral institutions — is hugely important to Louisiana’s economic future and to the well being of individual families. The slow death by budget cuts must stop.

How can funding for colleges and universities be stabilized? What is the right size for the state-run system? How can Louisiana give students options relatively close to home but not spread resources too thin and weaken every school? What is the best way to manage the overall system so that it is less fragmented?

We don’t have the answers. But our editorial board will spend the coming months looking for the best ideas from policy experts in Louisiana and elsewhere. We want to hear your insights as well. We will make sure that lawmakers, the governor and higher education officials hear what you have to say.

Together, we can hold them accountable — and get a long-term fix for what is ailing higher ed.