NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Rising tuition costs, departing faculty, and larger class sizes. Louisiana's next governor will have his hands full when it comes to addressing the future of higher education in the state.
Louisiana's colleges and universities have been hit by repeated budget cuts in recent years, leading many to question whether the state will have enough graduates to fill jobs. But the question facing the next governor is where funding will come from and how colleges and universities should best use it.
"No matter what, the next governor is going to have to do something in higher ed," said Barry Erwin, who heads the Council for a Better Louisiana in Baton Rouge, a nonpartisan think tank that monitors education issues.
Between 2008 and 2015, Louisiana support for higher education dropped by 34 percent, compared with a nationwide drop of 6 percent, according to the council. At the same time, tuition and fees went up by nearly 80 percent, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents.
All the main candidates for governor — Republicans Scott Angelle, Jay Dardenne and David Vitter and John Bel Edwards — agree higher education has been cut too much and have vowed to make higher education a priority. All have talked about the need to free up more money for higher education.
The problem, they say, is that so much of the state's money is already dedicated to other areas. When budget shortfalls arise, the only areas where lawmakers and the governor can make cuts are health care and higher education. All the candidates have talked about the need to re-examine how budget money is allocated and what's protected from cuts and scaling back tax breaks to generate new money for higher education.
Educators have been meeting with the candidates to push their message that higher education shouldn't be looked at as an expense, but as an investment. By 2020, more than half the state's jobs will need applicants with a postsecondary degree or certificate, but only 28 percent of adults currently have that, according to the council.
"You can't grow your economy if you can't produce the graduates. And that's what we do," said Sandra Woodley, who heads the University of Louisiana system with 90,000 students across nine institutions.
But finding the money won't be easy, with the state likely facing another shortfall next year after ending the most recent budget year at a deficit.
"Odds on next year is going to be even worse from what we're hearing," said Erin Cowser, head of governmental affairs at Southeastern Louisiana University, a school of 15,600 students in Hammond.
Joseph C. Rallo, the commissioner of higher education, said he's been told by heads of different schools that faculty with a lot of opportunities — science or technology, for example — are getting poached.
Students have rallied in the capital against cuts, such as University of New Orleans sophomore Ernijah Carter. He said many of his classmates from last year have since begun attending less-expensive community colleges: "A lot of them just couldn't pay for it."
But some say more money isn't the only problem, and they'll be looking to the next governor to make changes to how the system is run.
Stephen Waguespack, who heads Louisiana's leading business lobbying group, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said state colleges and universities need more autonomy to deal with issues like buying supplies. He said the Board of Regents needs to scrutinize college programs with low retention or graduation rates or that duplicate programs found at similar institutions nearby — steps Rallo says they're already taking.
Schools and universities have sometimes relied on classes that keep students enrolled rather than preparing them for the work force, said Waguespack.
Under the next governor, the organization would like to see additional dollars for higher education go to programs designed to fill high-demand jobs like computer science and construction specialties, similar to the 2014
Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund introduced by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The WISE fund was well-received by colleges and business at a time when the state faces acute worker shortages in manufacturing and petrochemical industries. But it has struggled to get enough money in only its second year.
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Posted on Tue, October 20, 2015
by REBECCA SANTANA, Associated Press