Carlson: A tough choice

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It’s a tough choice … is it déjà vu with here we go again?

Or is it a case of Louisiana really needs a definitive new plan with respect to funding higher education?

Last week, Louisiana higher education officials were notified that another $131 million in budget cuts are on the mid-year budget horizon unless state lawmakers are amenable to use rainy day funds and BP oil spill settlement funds to plug the anticipated $750 million budget shortage.

Marty Carlson
Marty Carlson

And again, while we may, in the short term, avoid more cuts to higher education, we won’t be spending the state’s rainy day funds or oil spill settlement funds on what these sums were intended. More worrisome, what’s in store for higher education as lawmakers and the Edwards’ administration works on ways to avoid a train wreck in the legislature’s regular session – the focus of which will be dealing with a predicted $1.9 billion shortfall.

But today’s focus is the fate of Louisiana’s higher education systems – and where we are headed in planning for and prioritizing the progressive future and economic impact of the products of these institutions.

As a primer on our current standing, I can’t strongly enough recommend a review of a news story and a special report featured in the (Baton Rouge) The Advocate on Sunday, January 24.

The first is “Are There Too Many Universities in Louisiana?” Thoughtful and informative, it opens with an observation with which many right here in north Louisiana can identify.

From writer Emily Crisp: “Barely 350,000 people live in northeast Louisiana. But drive the lonesome 30-mile stretch of highway from Monroe to Grambling and you will pass three public universities, all offering degrees in everything from kinesiology to music to world languages.”

The article includes a graphic titled “University Glut” and notes in part, “Louisiana has 14 four-year universities – more than Florida, which has a population four times’ Louisiana’s size.”

After reading this piece, one would not be criticized for wondering if maybe some consolidation considerations might figure into better fiscal management of state higher education costs.

Then, a reading of The Advocate’s companion special report, “How Louisiana Slashed College Aid and Left Students to Pick Up the Tab,” generates a whole new slew of questions about how Louisiana’s leadership views higher education.

It’s a comprehensive and informative piece that includes several notable statistics, but a couple in particular that should concern anyone interested in Louisiana being viewed above that of a third world nation.

“To make up for lost money, Louisiana has lifted tuition and mandatory attendance fees faster than any other state over the past five years. At the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, mandatory fees and tuition have shot up by 140 percent since Jindal took office, going from $3,430 to $8,244 per year … Louisiana was one of only six states to see a decrease in university enrollment between 2009 and 2014, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.”

This is a dismal distinction for Louisiana. It’s accepted that a college graduate’s annual earnings are about $30,000 over those of a high school graduate over a lifetime of earnings, which mean greater tax revenue from the former. So where in Louisiana’s grand plan is does fostering the growth of that enhanced income and resulting revenue stream?

Worse, as the state reduces funding to state higher education systems, and schools increase tuition and fees, the cost of funding TOPS — our celebrated state tuition assistance program increases. This program, the funding for which generates from the state’s general fund budget and has no revenue source save taxes, is expected to cost $387 million by 2018.

TOPS figures near the top of the “need a new plan” list; this program seems viewed by state lawmakers as some type of sacred entitlement that doesn’t necessarily serve its original purpose and does little to justify its costs.

Before we have another “what to cut” budget session, we need a higher education plan that isn’t flexible, isn’t negotiable, and isn’t open to gubernatorial and legislative whims.

Otherwise, Louisiana is deliberately retaining its multi-faceted reputation at the bottom of just about every national list imaginable.

Marty Carlson is a columnist for the BPT. She may be reached at martycarlson1218@gmail.com