When the fog of the budgeting process lifts, the likelihood is that Louisiana’s public universities and colleges won’t be $400 million in the hole. There are always more state funds to be raided, although the governor has been depleting those funds at a rapid rate. We’ve been frightened too many times, perhaps, to be appropriately alarmed this time.
It’s just as likely, though, that higher education will face new and severe cuts this year that will render the public campuses less imposing, less affordable to Louisiana students and more open to accreditation difficulties. The funding rot that has visited our campuses has come incrementally — not enough to shut down campuses but enough to weaken them year by year. Students pay more in tuition and fees, professors leave for greener pastures, infrastructure needs go wanting.
It’s true enough, at least in part, that higher education has been gutted because, constitutionally, it is one of two targets open to budget cuts for our elected officials. It didn’t have to remain that way; in his first few years in office, Gov. Bobby Jindal may have been powerful enough, popular enough, to effect changes to protect higher education funding — or at least to spread the pain around state budgets in the event of funding downturns. No more. Heading into his last legislative session, Jindal is the lamest of ducks.
The governor’s interest over the past several years have wandered far from our state campuses, except when he was looking to fix leaky state budgets. Higher education has been ravaged, perhaps by some $700 million, during the Jindal years. That’s why students pay more and the state pays ever less. There’s more trouble brewing.
The blame does not rest solely at governor’s feet. He has bled the campuses dry, but the Legislature has clout, too, and might have been less compliant over the years. Higher education leadership, divided over five boards, seldom speaks with one voice.
More important than what has happened is deciding how the state will move forward. If the campuses are in the dire state that our elected and appointed leaders believe, Louisiana must make radical changes in how we fund and preserve our campuses — if we preserve them all. That’s a topic worth discussing: Louisiana has more more state universities than Florida, with one-quarter of the population. The last time we created a four-year college — LSU-Alexandria — it was on the thin argument that Alexandria was the largest metro area in the state without a four-year campus. Now some other city is.
Do we need every four-year campus? Does every one serve students efficiently? Do some exist because political pushback would make it too difficult to close them? No, no and yes.
Better that Louisiana boast a handful of more efficient and productive campuses than a hatful of failing ones. Consider this: When Hurricane Katrina’s horrors left both the University of New Orleans and Southern University-New Orleans battered, the former state campus had a graduation rate of about 15 percent; the latter, just 5 percent. Time to close one state campus? Time to merge? Not at all. Talk turned not to serving students, but preserving faculty jobs. Was there ever a better time to consolidate resources? Yet the state blinked.
Opportunities still abound to cut spending. The GRAD Act — Granting Resources and Autonomies for Diplomas — presents benchmarks for minimum standards of efficiency and effectiveness. While GRAD applies to campuses’ authority to raise tuition, could those standards, or others, be used to focus on disbanding campuses that typically waste taxpayer funding?
There are other ways higher education could cut budget shortfalls: distance educating, pursuing non-traditional students, creating consortiums. Some campuses may need to shrink, if they survive. Not every student needs to go to college; toughen admissions standards.
Most of all, difficult times call for making difficult decisions. Louisiana has avoided too many of those.
Decide while we can decide. Better to make tough fiscal choices than to be left with no options.