Regents chairman chides state lawmakers

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Louisiana Board of Regents Chairman W. Clinton 'Bubba' Rasberry addresses members of the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge on the state of higher education in Louisiana on Wednesday at Boudreaux's.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Louisiana Board of Regents Chairman W. Clinton 'Bubba' Rasberry addresses members of the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge on the state of higher education in Louisiana on Wednesday at Boudreaux's.

Rasberry: Education funding key

One of the state’s top higher education leaders said Wednesday Louisiana’s historical ambivalence toward higher education has a lot to do with the current doldrums colleges and universities are facing where many institutions are finding it hard to recruit and retain top-notch professors, pay current faculty competitive wages and keep up with growing maintenance backlogs.

Louisiana Board of Regents Chairman W. Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry also told a packed Rotary Club of Baton Rouge meeting that some state leaders say they value higher education, but their actions don’t reflect that. “There are certain people in our Legislature that are inappropriately advised,” he said.

During his speech Rasberry said part of the state’s current problems is that Louisiana has been slow to move away from the attitude that all that’s required for success “is a strong back and a good work ethic.”

Education, he said, is the most effective way for families to enter the middle class and a way for communities to minimize crime and poverty.

He said 64 percent of the jobs that are going to be available in the next decade are going to require some sort of college credential, whether it’s a technical college certificate or a Ph.D. “It’ll be the countries and states that have the density of skilled workers that will thrive.” The rest are certain to decline economically, he said.

In perhaps his most pointed comments, Rasberry talked about the transformation Louisiana’s higher education institutions are going through driven by more than $700 million in state budget cuts since 2008.

“If higher education is a priority in our state, the level of investment must reflect that,” Rasberry said. “We need stability in funding and some predictability.”

Rasberry made passing comments about two higher education panels the nine-member Postsecondary Education Review Commission of 2010 and the 18-member Governance Commission of 2011 that studied how to increase enrollment, appropriately fund colleges and increase graduation and retention rates.

The two groups suggested “rational and appropriate funding for higher education,” Rasberry said. But “most of those recommendations didn’t make it far in the Legislature.”

Additionally, Louisiana’s higher education community got behind a set of changes earlier this year intended to give schools more controls over their finances.

Led by the Regents, colleges and universities went to the Legislature asking for the authority to set their own tuition, permission to charge more for expensive programs and the go-ahead to charge students on a per-credit basis.

All of those ideas died in the Legislature without much of a debate.

Outside of the funding issue, Rasberry said colleges and universities can be a great benefit to the state by seeking out the 20 percent of the population that started college but didn’t finish. Finding those people will afford them a greater opportunity to join the middle class, which in turn, helps the state by expanding the tax base.

Rasberry also touched on the financial implications of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the state’s popular scholarship program known as TOPS. He called it an idea that was created with “pure intentions” to reward high-achieving students.

But he added that the cost to the state has risen 260 percent from $54 million in 1999 to $192 million last year. More than half of the students who received TOPS last year come from households that make $75,000 per year or more, he said.

“As tuition rises, so does TOPS,” Rasberry said. “It’s draining the state.”