In spite of $1.9 billion shortfall, higher education leaders optimistic; banking on new governor’s promises, new legislative plans

State higher education leaders are facing their current situation with cautious optimism: A new year, governor and legislative leaders.

Just a year after staving off what promised to be devastating cuts to higher education funding, Louisiana’s colleges and universities find themselves in the same boat but with several new factors that could work to their advantage.

Louisiana is faced with a $1.9 billion revenue shortfall, but leaders have expressed some interest in generating more revenue through taxes and addressing structural issues in the budget that have left higher education vulnerable.

And Gov. John Bel Edwards campaigned on a commitment to higher education — even mentioning it as a priority in his inaugural speech last week.

“He has said very plainly that improving education is his goal,” Board of Regents Chairman Richard Lipsey said in a recent interview with The Advocate.

Edwards said in a statement that he remains committed to ending the years of repeated budget cuts that have plagued colleges and universities.

“As I stated during my campaign, my goal is to work toward increasing the level of state support for our postsecondary institutions to at least 50 percent over the next four years, thereby increasing student access to a quality education,” Edwards said. “This represents an investment in our students and our state.”

The state now pays about 30 percent and students 70 percent of the costs of their education. Edwards has said he wants it to be closer to a 50-50 split.

Lipsey said based on private discussions with Edwards, he believes the new governor is committed to that goal and “wants to be seen as the education governor.”

“He’s got to do it working with both sides of the fence,” Lipsey said. “It ought to be a priority for everybody.”

The state Board of Regents has requested a lofty $1.7 billion for higher education in the coming year and that will be the biggest priority for higher education leaders heading into the legislative session that begins in March. Beyond money, their wish list isn’t long. One thing they don’t want: The continuation of the GRAD Act.

“We’re asking to get to a good baseline, again,” Lipsey said. “Unless we get funded, we’re going to be right back where we are.”

Colleges and universities had braced for deep cuts during last year’s legislative session.

Hundreds of students rallied at the Capitol and testified to legislative panels about the impact further cuts would have. College leaders threatened to scale back course offerings, and schools prepared financial exigent documents just in case.

Ultimately, lawmakers cobbled together a $24.5 billion state spending plan that relied heavily on short-term fixes to stave off the deepest hits to the agencies’ budgets and largely spare higher education.

“Nothing has changed to protect higher education,” Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo said. “We are just as vulnerable as we were last year.”

Lipsey said he worries that industries being built in Louisiana will go away if the workforce doesn’t meet demand.

“You have to have an educated workforce,” he said. “We’ve got so many opportunities but it all goes back to education.”

“Where are our priorities?” he said.

On top of its $1.7 billion request, which includes $300 million for financial aid programs like the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the state Board also is asking for $350 million from the Capital Outlay Fund that lawmakers use to pay for various construction projects. None of that would go to new buildings — all projects identified are long-delayed repairs to campus buildings.

“It’s strictly maintenance that is far past due,” Lipsey said.

Colleges and universities currently have a more than $2 billion backlog of maintenance projects that have been put off.

“That is a real problem,” Lipsey said.

He said he’s personally asking state lawmakers to put higher education above the various pet projects that they would seek funding for through Capital Outlay.

“Those would take money away from education,” he said. “I can justify every nickel of it.”

Lipsey and Rallo also stressed that the state can’t rely on the continuation of the GRAD Act, a law the Legislature passed in 2010 giving schools the authority to raise tuition if they met certain performance benchmarks.

“It worked well for a few years,” Lipsey said. “We needed it.”

Over time, the GRAD Act’s effect has shifted, though, he said, and it’s come at the expense of the state’s institutions.

“There’s no longer a need for the GRAD Act,” Rallo said. “ It became punitive and that was never the intent.”

The GRAD Act was established as an incentive program for colleges to achieve outlined goals. If they improved their retention and graduation rates or met other benchmarks, they would get more autonomy and be able to increase tuition to bring in more funding.

But as the state slashed funding for higher education, schools increasingly relied on tuition dollars and needed the yearly hikes to stay afloat.

Schools will soon face a new monetary incentive to improve without legislative action.

Higher education is moving toward a more performance-based funding model, Lipsey said, that will be implemented gradually and while working with the institutions.

Rallo said the outcomes-based formula will have tailored tracks for four year schools, two year schools and institutions that have no students, like the Pennington Biomedical Research Center and the agriculture centers.

The performance measures include retention and graduation rates, as well as focus on high-demand, high-wage fields. They are also looking to reward schools where students take higher course loads — 15 hours a semester versus the current 12 hour load that’s required for students to meet full-time status.

Colleges will also get credit for the number of Pell Grant recipients they serve. Federally-funded Pell is a needs-based program for low-income students. Rallo said schools that take in more Pell recipients will get credit for helping expand access to higher education.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.

More Stories