Budget woes force tech schools to refocus

By Jacob Batte
Staff Writer
Published: Thursday, January 29, 2015 at 6:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2015 at 6:24 p.m.

Fletcher Technical Community College, as well as other state two-year schools of higher education, are in an unenviable position.

They’re being pushed to meet growing workforce demands in the face of enormous proposed cuts. State legislators and higher education officials expect as much as $400 million to be cut from state colleges and universities when Gov. Bobby Jindal releases his proposed budget on Feb. 27.

“We better be focused on producing more, that’s where revenue comes from. More people educated, more people going to work. That’s what we’re focused on,” Monty Sullivan, Louisiana Community and Technical College System president, told a group of officials from Fletcher and South Central Louisiana Technical College on Wednesday.

To do so, Sullivan said, vocational schools need to refocus their recruiting efforts. Instead of recruiting the 40,000 annual high school graduates, two-year schools need to direct their attention to the 2.3 million working-age adults in the state.

Higher education institutions would “all starve to death if our focus is on graduating high school seniors,” Sullivan said.

Officials have speculated as many as 15 schools, including six technical and community colleges, could be closed if cuts are as steep as projected. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System alone has a budget of $300 million.

However, state officials are confident of Fletcher’s survival and that legislators will decrease the amount cut from higher education.

The goal now, Sullivan said, is to spread the word. That was, in part, why he visited Fletcher’s Schriever campus this week, encouraging vocational school faculty to market the benefits of two-year schools while also keeping them abreast of his strategic plan, Louisiana 2020.

The plan is to double the amount of graduating students and their future incomes, and double the Louisiana Community and Technical College System’s foundation assets. Transfers to four-year universities and business partnerships are targeted to quadruple.

Fletcher is “front and center” in Sullivan’s recently announced strategic plan, he said, noting the college’s $8 million Integrated Production Technology Building and $6.6 million Marine & Petroleum Safety Training Center that Fletcher partnered with South Central to create.

Programs like those two will help increase the number of skilled labor being pumped into the market. The more skilled labor, interim Fletcher Chancellor Earl Meador said, the more revenue being brought into the state.

“The only way we can help solve the state’s budget issue is to keep producing qualified workers into the community. We need to find those unemployed and underemployed workers, train them and get them back on the market,” Meador said.

Workforce officials expect businesses to add 14,000 upper-level jobs annually. Sullivan said he projects about 85 percent, or 12,152, of those jobs, can be filled by two-year colleges.

“The discussion is no longer about enrollment, it’s about employment. It’s about graduate earnings,” Sullivan said.

Of those jobs, construction, welding and industrial production have the largest projected annual growth. If cuts are implemented, programs that produce those jobs will be safe, Sullivan said.

“You talk about a budget problem in Louisiana. There’s a revenue problem. Who helps drive revenue in Louisiana? We do,” he said.

The state’s two-year colleges have been an example of efficiency, Sullivan said.

State aid per student has dropped from more than $21,000 in 2000 to less than $5,000 last year, state officials said. Over the same time frame, total graduate income has risen from $143 million to $723 million.

Louisiana has the fastest-growing two-year college system in the country, Sullivan said. Between the 2006-07 and 2013-14 school years, enrollment increased from about 62,000 students to 111,000.

The number of students who leave technical colleges with a degree or certification has more than doubled from 14,000 in 2000 to more than 29,000 last year.

Staff Writer Jacob Batte can be reached at 448-7635 or jacob.batte@dailycomet.com. Follow him on Twitter @ja_batte.