Central Louisiana colleges and universities are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst in light of projections of more than $300 million in budget cuts to state higher education.
“Cuts of this magnitude — 50 to 60 percent of (University of Louisiana System schools’) state funding — go beyond just regular budget cuts,” system President Sandra Woodley said. “All of our institutions would be affected negatively and some would have more risk than others.”
Woodley would not speak to specific schools as details regarding cuts remain unclear. The state’s executive budget will not be released until February, but Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration has predicted that cuts to higher education will be anywhere from $200 million to $300 million next year. Legislators and education officials insist that figure will be closer to $380 million to make up for a $1.4 billion shortfall that could continue to grow, The Times-Picayune reported.
A funding reduction of that size could mean closing the doors of multiple institutions and campuses of Louisiana college systems, according to legislators and higher education officials. Around 15 locations — including three in the UL System and six in the community and technical college cohort — could be directly affected, The Times-Picayune reported.
“Cuts at that level … would have a dramatic impact on Northwestern,” said Jim Henderson, president of Northwestern State University — a member of the UL System — in Natchitoches. “But I think we’re working with legislators and officials to ensure we find other sources of funding.”
In the face of these projections, local school leaders are trying to be proactive by being fiscally responsible, finding alternative routes of funding and providing a valuable service to students and communities.
Louisiana State University of Alexandria Chancellor Dan Howard said the school has been “extremely conservative” of its resources. It has implemented position control, evaluating whether vacant positions must be filled or if duties can be spread to other positions. The school also conserves energy, keeping thermostats low and lights off when possible.
Louisiana State Univeristy Chancellor Dan HowardBuy Photo
Louisiana State Univeristy Chancellor Dan Howard (Photo: The Town Talk)
“We are in good condition financially to go forward,” Howard said. “We would continue to stretch our resources as far as we could.”
But stretched resources, the result of sustaining years of budget cuts already, shows that many institutions have “pretty thin margins” for more, Woodley said.
She warned that the cuts as projected would affect more than the state’s higher education systems. Louisiana already has low education attainment and is not producing enough graduates in high-demand areas like industries locating to the state, she said. If the state cannot meet industries’ workforce needs, they might not be here long-term.
“The real problem is if with cuts of this magnitude institutions are no longer able to provide access like they are now, which is already too low, there could be an economic snowball in the opposite direction,” she said. “It could erase the gains in economic development that have been made.”
If the projection becomes the reality through the legislative session that begins in April, it is unclear whether Louisiana could fulfill the state-match component of President Barack Obama’s proposal of free tuition for two years at a community college. Details on cost and funding of the federal program are expected to come in the State of the Union Address on Jan. 20 and the president’s budget request Feb. 2. Reports say the federal government would pay three quarters of the cost, at least initially. States could be asked to make up the rest.
‘Control our own destiny’
Henderson and his team are taking a good look at operations at Northwestern State to “control our own destiny,” he said.
Reorganization of the university’s structure already was a part of Henderson’s plan for the school as well as a recommendation from outside consultants. Reviewers recommended re-evaluating the structure to determine whether a more consolidated and streamlined structure would reduce costs and enhance efficiency.
“This just gives us more of an imperative to do that,” Henderson said. “… We want to be part of the solution. But we don’t have the luxury of waiting for the state to come up with solutions.”
Central Louisiana Technical and Community College acting
Central Louisiana Technical and Community College acting Chancellor Jimmy Sawtelle (Photo: Melinda Martinezfirstname.lastname@example.org)
Leadership at Central Louisiana Technical and Community College in Alexandria is of the same mindset, despite hearing “nothing definitive of any budget cuts,” acting Chancellor Jimmy Sawtelle said.
“We’re always looking for efficiency at the college,” he said. “We’re doing an ongoing analysis of all our processes. … We look in every direction (for funding).”
Sawtelle’s focus is preserving the number of instructional staff, maintaining a “healthy” ratio of students to teachers for each class, as results from the analysis and budget talks unfold.
“Instructional staff is what actually accomplishes our mission,” he said. “(We want to) not just protect but also to grow that.”
As state funding dwindles, public institutions rely more heavily on tuition and fees to operate. LSUA hopes to continue its trend of increasing enrollment after seeing a 21-percent increase jump for fall 2014. It was the largest enrollment at the school since 2008 and largest year-to-year increase since 1987, according to the university.
“What we certainly would do is endeavor to continue to increase enrollment to the university,” Howard said. That could be in the form of distance learners, as Howard plans to expand online offerings.
LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander said the system is beginning to plan now for a wide range of final budget scenarios.
“We are working with them (Jindal and the state Legislature) on a number of possible options to avoid further reductions,” Alexander said in a statement.