By Koran Addo
Capitol news bureau
October 19, 2012
Louisiana’s top higher education leader told legislators Thursday that public colleges and universities have done a good job becoming more efficient in recent years even as state funding has plummeted by $426 million since 2008.
But some legislators attending the Joint Budget Committee meeting at the State Capitol questioned why Louisiana’s colleges couldn’t stand to trim even more fat off their budgets.
State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell countered that while colleges will continue to seek efficiencies that make sense academically and financially, state institutions would be better off in the long run if the Legislature would loosen some of the restrictions placed on generating revenue.
In more than an hour of testimony, Purcell explained that Louisiana is next to the bottom nationwide in funding two-year colleges and last in funding four-year schools, while also keeping tuition at some of the lowest rates in the country.
Louisiana’s higher education community has responded by reducing administrative staff by 24 percent; faculty by nearly 5 percent; and skilled maintenance workers by 26 percent, Purcell said.
State schools, which have increased enrollment by 10 percent since 2008, are also utilizing larger class sizes, relying on adjunct faculty and using “virtual” lectures as cost-saving measures, Purcell said.
“We are not giving our institutions the support they need to be successful,” he said.
Louisiana has a 40 percent college graduation rate compared with the 56 percent national average and the 53 percent Southern average, Purcell said. In the past, universities had more money to spend on the high-cost programs such as physics and pharmacy that needed lower student-to-faculty ratios.
The model has flipped, he said, as schools have to offer more low-cost programs in order to afford a few high-cost programs.
Purcell suggested that Louisiana colleges would be better off should the Legislature allow institutions to charge more for high-demand programs and charge students on a per-credit-hour basis.
Tuition is currently capped at 12-credit hours.
Purcell also suggested the management boards governing Louisiana’s four college system’s be given more authority to set tuition at their individual institutions while taking regional differences and poverty levels into account.
Louisiana is the only state in the country in which the Legislature has total control over tuition.
Purcell said he would still support having the Legislature sign off on tuition increases before hikes could take effect.
State Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, was one of a few legislators who questioned whether colleges were doing all they could to reduce spending.
Champagne urged the state’s higher education management board, the Louisiana Board of Regents, to report back to the Legislature the number of students who graduate versus the number of people employed in higher education; the number of contracts schools have with vendors; and how many employees have been moved into higher paying positions over the past several years.
After the meeting, Purcell said he understood Champagne’s concern. The regents will study how schools located in close proximity can collaborate on programs to share resources and revenue, he said.
“We’ll be working with the campuses to find additional efficiencies,” Purcell said. “But it’s not all about financial efficiencies, it’s about doing what’s appropriate.”