Hard Times for Higher Education

Gov. Jindal brags about his “heroic work” for higher education, but the numbers tell a different story.

His so-called heroism has led to faculty and staff layoffs, program cuts and bone-thin campus budgets that put the entire higher education system in serious jeopardy.

During Jindal’s first four years of office, between 2008 and ’12, funding for two-year colleges plunged 26.3 percent and funding for four-year colleges decreased 18.2 percent, according to the Southern Regional Education Board’s 2013 Fact Book. The reductions added up to $2,000 to $2,400 less funding per full-time equivalent student, SREB statistics show.

Moreover, a report compiled by the Board of Regents, Louisiana’s coordinating board for higher education, says that state funding for the entire higher education system was cut 42 percent in those years, with less than half replaced with increases in student tuition. Additional cuts in 2012-’13, will increase these staggering figures in future reports.

No matter what calculations are used to create the big picture, the outcome is the same: larger class sizes, less instructional interaction between faculty and students, fewer program and class options and the loss of quality faculty to more stable environments. The bottom line is a general weakening of educational quality and national reputation.

All of this comes from a governor who promised more jobs by bringing high-paying industry to Louisiana, a governor who has insisted for more than six years that higher education is important for economic development.

When Jindal took office in 2008, state funding for higher education had reached the southern average for the first time in 25 years because of the truly heroic efforts of the two governors who preceded him. Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, truly made education a priority – their actions matched their words.

“Now it’s just eroded,” former Gov. Blanco said in a recent interview with this writer. “It’s extremely disappointing. It took years to get to that point, and it would have been easy to maintain.”

While it’s true that many states in the southern region reduced funding to higher education during the economic recession, Louisiana’s reductions have been more drastic. Under Jindal’s supervision, Louisiana has resumed its place at near the bottom of appropriations per student, SREB figures show.

Jindal and the state legislature intensified the effect of the recession on higher education and health care immediately after he took office by rolling back tax rates, mostly for the state’s most wealthy residents. The failure to renew these taxes resulted in an estimated loss of $300 and $350 million in state revenue, enough to offset future cuts to education and health care.

 The Board of Regents report says that state funding to higher education was cut $625 million between 2008 and ’12, and tuition increases have made up less than half of the revenue losses.

Jindal used the word “heroic” to describe his administration’s efforts to protect higher education in April when Hoda Kotb of NBC News interviewed him during an education event held in New Orleans.

“We have made it a priority,” Jindal told Kotb in an interview broadcast live.

A month after he uttered these words, the Louisiana Technical and Community College System board approved plans to lay off 115 employees at Delgado Community College, 64 of which were faculty. It was the second round of layoffs at Delgado. In February the college cut 46 administrative and staff positions. May’s action included the elimination of 15 academic programs, the Associated Press reported. At the same time, Nunez Community College won approval to reduce its workforce by 15.

In a strange twist, during the same period that both New Orleans area community college campuses were struggling to operate with reduced operating funds, NOLA.com reported that the Legislature and Jindal approved $251.6 million in construction projects for community colleges around the state. Delgado is slated to receive $92 million in new construction, including a new nursing facility, and Nunez is getting a student success center.

New facilities are good news for community colleges and will be money well spent. A state Occupational Forecasting Conference concluded that 95 percent of future jobs will require training above a high school degree, but only 28 percent will require a bachelor’s degree from a four-year university. This kind of training between high school and university is the purview of community and technical colleges, and they need up-to-date facilities to train tomorrow’s workforce.

On the other hand, what’s the point of spending $250 million on new buildings for campuses that the state refuses to fund adequately? These facilities will require workers to provide services and faculty members to teach technical skills and the general education courses necessary to earn associate’s degrees.

College officials say that the most devastating cuts to college operations have been the mid-year cuts that the state has imposed almost annually since 2008. The state’s allocation and student tuition support two semesters of instruction, one in the fall and one in the spring, so the total must be divided between the two.

By January of every year, after the spring semester begins, 100 percent of a college’s budget has been committed to completing the semester, even though the money itself hasn’t yet been spent. Salaries, for example, are committed but paid on a biweekly cycle. When the state cuts college budgets in later months, colleges are left with inadequate money to finish the semester, which forces them to dip into rapidly disappearing emergency funds.

“We cannot just decide to cancel or reduce the spring semester in March or April when we learn of the impending cut,” says Nunez’ Chief Financial Officer Louis Lehr about budgeting. “So for the state to consistently cut our budget after the spring semester begins when they know that 100 percent of our state money is gone is devastating to our operations.”

Jindal’s pattern of exaggerating his achievements and ignoring his failures hasn’t escaped the notice of Louisiana voters.

Two recent polls show that his approval rating took a dive between 2012 and ’13. A poll taken by Southern Media and Opinion Research, an independent research firm, showed his approval rating dropped from 51 percent in October to 38 percent in March, various news agencies reported.

If Jindal plans to continue his political career after he leaves the governor’s office he’d be wise to spend what remains of his term doing some real heroic work.

Editor’s Note: Dawn Ruth is on the faculty at Nunez Community College.

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