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Private-Tears

The evolution of hard times for higher education

Cheryl Gerber

The latest round of faculty layoffs and program reductions at the University of New Orleans, announced at the end of last year, were as predictable as they were disturbing. Worse still, such announcements are likely to continue, despite state officials’ stated desire to stabilize higher education funding.

UNO’s enormous loss of enrollment since Hurricane Katrina, combined with an equally enormous loss in state funding, has made the university especially vulnerable to the shifting political and economic forces that are reshaping the delivery of higher education, especially in Louisiana.

Even though state officials say they will do what they can to protect higher education in the future, with oil prices falling, the situation is ripe for another round of devastating budget cuts. The Legislative Fiscal Office estimates a budget deficit of between $1 and $1.4 billion in the 2015-’16 fiscal year.

“It’s going to be another trying year,” says Barbara Goodson, deputy commissioner for finance at the Board of Regents, the state’s coordinating board of higher education. “We are concerned, definitely concerned.”

Louisiana colleges and universities are in crisis, and there’s no reason to expect miracles anytime soon. In fact, the situation is worse. In addition to the effect of falling oil prices on state revenue, two constitutional amendments approved by voters in November protect some health care funding from reductions, leaving higher education the largest sitting duck on the shooting range.

 Because higher education constitutes a significant portion of the state’s discretionary general fund, “it will be difficult to not impact” college and university funding next fiscal year, says Jodi Mauroner, education section director for the Legislative Fiscal Office.

 Since 2008, the year Gov. Jindal took office, the state has reduced higher education funding by about $700 million, a recent Board of Regents chart shows. The state has allowed schools to raise tuition in the last few years, but 2014 was the first time since the tuition hikes went into effect that the schools actually received the additional funds, says Lori Parker, the board’s assistant commissioner for budget analysis.  

“The schools are hurting,” Parker says. “I really don’t know how they are doing it.”

The 2008 recession affected higher education funding nationwide, but statistics generated by the Southern Regional Education Board, a consortium of 16 states, shows that other states in the southern region did a far better job protecting higher education during the economic downturn.

Between 2008 and ’13, SREB figures show that state appropriations to colleges and universities in Louisiana fell by 31.1 percent. With inflation taken into account, the schools received 34.3 percent less state funding, the SREB Fact Book shows. The second largest loser was Florida’s colleges with a 22.4 percent loss to a budget triple the size of Louisiana’s. Most other states reduced funding in the 15 percent or less range, and four states increased or maintained stable funding.

Louisiana’s higher education officials are sometimes reluctant to discuss the damage caused by budget cuts because those who speak out sometimes disappear.

Take for example former Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell. The Advocate newspaper reported in January 2013 that Purcell presented a report to the Board of Regents outlining the dramatic slide in funding and asked them to lobby the legislature for more money. Two months later, The Advocate reported that a group of Republicans accused Gov. Jindal’s office of trying to get Purcell fired for his public comments. The Advocate quoted Regents Chairman Clinton Rasberry saying that it was “common knowledge” that the Jindal administration was “upset” with Purcell but that he knew of no attempt to end the commissioner’s contract. The conflict quieted down, but Purcell left his position about a year later.

Jindal took over the steerage of government at time when state funding for higher education had reached the southern average for the first time in 25 years. Then the recession hit and instead of protecting state revenue, he and the Legislature rolled back state tax rates, mostly for higher income residents. The failure to renew rates resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in state revenue and six years of unstable budgetary cycles.

To be fair, poor policy decisions involving higher education go back decades, starting with Gov. Edwin Edwards’ years in office, when the state overbuilt higher education with oil boom money without regard to efficiency. The state created more four-year universities than the average for its population size and then added a community college system beginning in the 1990s.

The community colleges were a much-needed addition because future job projections show that most workers will need the kind of skilled training they can deliver, but the end result is a system of 38 colleges and universities, including some expensive professional schools, competing for state revenue in an anti-tax political environment.

Enrollment in the community college system, now only getting an average of 52 percent of the state revenue it needs to function properly, according to the Board of Regents’ funding formula, has swelled from about 55,000 in 2006 to about 80,000 in 2013. At the same time, Board of Regents figures show that many public universities are losing enrollment. UNO’s enrollment, for example, dropped 2,400 students between 2009 and 2013 to a low of 9,323, nearly half of its enrollment pre-Katrina. At the same time, Delgado Community College’s enrollment mushroomed from 13,000 to 19,000.

“They need to be recruiting,” Goodson says of UNO’s enrollment problems. Many Louisiana residents have earned some college credit but no degree. Goodson says UNO must lure them back to school.

 

 

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