WISE Council gets rough overview of funding distribution

Higher education and workforce leaders are moving closer to developing guidelines for the distribution of a new $40 million fund for Louisiana colleges and universities, but the group overseeing the WISE Fund is still tweaking its formula.

The discussion over how to divvy up the Legislature-created Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund has largely come down to $5 million and could affect whether the Louisiana Community and Technical College System will have access to the biggest slice or if the LSU system will.

Four potential models of distribution were discussed during a Monday meeting of the WISE Council, which will make spending recommendations to the state Board of Regents. None of the proposals were adopted, but they provided insight into the size of the windfalls that systems stand to reap from the fund, which was backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal as a way to give more money to colleges and universities and build the state’s workforce.

Under all of the proposals outlined Monday, the Southern University system would be eligible for up to $2 million in WISE Fund money.

The LSU system’s haul, under the outlines developed by Board of Regents staff, would be between $14.8 million and $12.7 million — depending on how gaps in state employment play into the allocation formula and whether the length of time to complete certain degrees will become a factor.

The University of Louisiana system would be seeing between $8.3 million to $11.6 million from the WISE Fund, under the preliminary distribution models.

And LCTCS, depending on the final formula, could see $11.3 million to $16.7 million.

After years of repeated state budget cuts, all of the systems are looking to tap into as much as possible, which has spurred the recent debates over priorities.

“Forty million is not enough to cover anywhere near what we need to do,” said Sandra Woodley, University of Louisiana system president. “We don’t have enough money to do it all.”

Under the WISE Fund structure, schools within the systems will compete for funding largely based on the degrees and certificates they can produce in high-demand fields such as construction, finance, computer science or engineering. A smaller portion of the funding — about 20 percent — will be distributed based on federally funded research that the colleges perform.

To qualify, schools will have to secure a 20 percent private match from a business partner, either cash or an in-kind contribution, which leaders say will help foster better ties to the business community. Businesses already have expressed interest in participating, but the program can’t move forward until the guidelines are set and schools begin applying.

Members of the WISE Council had originally hoped to have a recommendation to send to the Board of Regents ahead of its meeting this week, but leaders have clashed over which job and education priorities should carry the most weight.

Board of Regents Chairman Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry said he hopes that leaders can reflect on Monday’s discussions and “come back with some solutions.”

“Hopefully, one that could drive us toward something we could vote on,” he said.

Rasberry said higher education leaders have been working on the WISE Fund effort for at least 10 months. They backed the proposal together as it made its way through the State Capitol this session.

“Everyone has taken into consideration the needs of others,” he said. “Without the concessions that have been made, we wouldn’t be here.”

The WISE Fund has been hailed as one of the successes from the Louisiana Legislature’s 2014 session. After years of deep budget cuts, the competitive funding program has been seen as a way for colleges to tap into more state resources while helping more directly address the state’s workforce needs.

Tom Layzell, senior adviser to the Board of Regents, said the WISE Fund is unique.

“I don’t really know of anything like it going on in any other state,” Layzell said. “People are watching this.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .