Despite assurances from Gov. Bobby Jindal and his staff, Southern President Ronald Mason said Monday he is not yet ready to buy into the narrative that state funding for higher education will stabilize in 2014.
Speaking to the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Mason said the governor assured him and others that next year’s revenue predictions were looking up and there’s “a good chance for stable funding.”
Just one year without a budget cut would be a relief to Louisiana’s network of public colleges and universities which have become used to seeing their budgets reduced year after year.
Collectively, the schools have been stripped of nearly $700 million in state funds since 2008 as the governor and the Legislature maneuvered to balance state budgets.
Late Monday, Jindal reaffirmed what Mason said, releasing a prepared statement that said: “We’re optimistic about revenues for next year, and we’ll certainly make higher education a priority.”
Mason later said he doesn’t know if there is any real reason for optimism.
“I don’t have an independent assessment of it,” Mason said. “All I can do is repeat what I’ve been told. I don’t really have a sense of it and there are too many unknowns.”
During his roughly 45 minutes at the lectern, Mason also spoke about a recent movement to dismantle the Southern system, alumni’s dissatisfaction with the school and any tension that may exist between Southern and the state’s two-year institutions.
Southern has been dealing with a particularly hard set of financial circumstances as budget cuts have coincided with enrollment declines brought on in part by rising tuition costs and tougher admission standards mandated by the state.
Enrollment on the Baton Rouge campus was about 9,500 students in 2004 before it peaked at around 10,000 in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
After that, student numbers went into a free fall with Southern administrators estimating the school was losing between 300 and 400 students per year for several consecutive years.
This year, the Baton Rouge campus welcomed a much larger freshman class than usual, enrolling 1,115 first-time students compared to 743 last year. Overall, campus enrollment increased to 6,667 — representing an increase of several dozen students over last year.
Mason said things are looking up throughout the system as Southern has cut costs, cleaned up past accounting problems and centralized back office operations including going from five human resource offices — one on each campus — to one centralized department run by the system.
Southern has also been able to tap into student populations that were previously unreachable through more online degree programs and the SUSLA Connect initiative, Mason said.
Under the program, Southern’s two-year community college in Shreveport, known as SUSLA, offers remedial courses on the Baton Rouge and New Orleans campuses. Once students reach 18 credits, their enrollment automatically transfers and they become full-fledged university students.
Mason said he believes those type of changes has positioned Southern as a leader in a “state that is getting out of the higher ed business.”
“With all these changes, it’s clear some institutions are going to be standing when the dust settles,” he added.
It’s a stark contrast from three years ago, Mason said, when the Legislature was considering taking Southern’s New Orleans and Shreveport campuses away and folding them into other systems.
“Clearly somebody didn’t want Southern to be around,” Mason said.
But with a rosier outlook, comes better fortunes, he said, adding that fundraising is starting to pick up as former students recognize the direction Southern is headed.
“Our alumni have been a little disaffected with their alma mater as of late but we’re starting to reverse that,” Mason said.
Mason also addressed whether any tension exists between Southern and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
In higher education circles, LCTCS and its president, Joe May, are widely believed to have more political clout than the state’s other systems.
Mason said tension is too strong a word but added “clearly there is a policy afoot to drive new students into the two-year schools. Joe May has done a very good job convincing people that for workforce development you don’t need a four-year degree. That’s not true.
“There’s a misplaced notion that all we need are welders and electricians,” Mason continued. “I don’t think that’s the type of economy we want to build.”