Board urged to stop education budget slashing

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK --  State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell on Thursday asked Board of Regents members to lobby Louisiana legislators for more support for public colleges and universities.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell on Thursday asked Board of Regents members to lobby Louisiana legislators for more support for public colleges and universities.

State Commissioner of Education Jim Purcell on Thursday pushed the state’s higher education policy board to lobby the Legislature for more support for public colleges.

Louisiana’s colleges and universities have lost more than $625 million to state budget cuts in the past four years, according to an accounting that Purcell presented to the Louisiana Board of Regents.

“We need you to help us,” Purcell told the Louisiana Board of Regents.

Several members of the Regents said they’d support talking to legislators and other influential people, but a few insisted that higher education leaders need to stop harping on budget cuts and look to the future.

“We are in an intensifying crisis within the state,” said regents Chairman Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry Jr., of Shreveport. “It hasn’t been caused by one particular individual or a particular legislature ... from this point on I’m only interested in how we move forward.”

Purcell’s call for help and subsequent path forward came as he answered the regents’ request for an update on the state of higher education.

Purcell said Louisiana’s low tuition compared with schools in surrounding states coupled with five straight years of budget cuts have put an outsize burden on colleges and universities.

“A lot of states are coming out of the recession and starting to reinvest in higher education,” Purcell said. “We are not one of those.”

Institutions were able to offset some of the losses from budget cuts with more than $300 million in tuition increases, he said.

But the gap between the amount of money schools have to work with in 2008 versus 2013 — $294 million — is very significant, according to Purcell.

To make his point, Purcell singled out Baton Rouge Community College — a school which has lost more than $11 million, or 52 percent, of its state funding since 2008.

“BRCC is in the fastest-growing city in the state, and they’ve gone from $20 million to $9 million. That’s more than a 50 percent cut,” Purcell said. “The question is, are we doing the things we need to do.”

He added that continued budget cuts are hampering schools’ ability to train students who can meet workforce demands.

According to the regents, in that same time period:

Purcell suggested Louisiana’s higher education system would fare better if the Legislature were to relinquish tuition increasing authority to the state’s four college and university systems; if tuition rates would be market based; if schools were allowed to charge more for high-cost, high-demand programs; and if schools were able to charge tuition per credit hour.

Currently students are only charged for the first 12 credit hours they take in a semester.

“All of these options need legislative approval,” Purcell said.

But Regents Vice Chairman Joseph Wiley, of Gonzales, said he and others run into problems trying to lobby the Legislature for more money when Louisiana has recently seen increases in the number of students enrolling in postsecondary education and the number of students graduating.

“When people see that, the folks outside of our huddle can’t see any significant negative impacts” of the budget cuts, he said.

Wiley said the regents need to come up with a new strategy other than complaining about budget cuts before legislators start tuning them out.

“We really need to get off what’s happened in the last four years,” he said.

Wiley suggested that higher education leaders need to ask themselves what each individual school needs to survive.

“Our challenge to higher education is to find out what is it that we don’t have today that we need,” Wiley said. “Is it salary increases, is it more facility maintenance?”

Wiley suggested the individual college systems, and not the regents, need to make clear to legislators what they are lacking as the best way to move forward.