New funding for colleges clears first hurdle

A plan to reward Louisiana colleges and universities with increased funding for every engineering, computer science or other in-demand degree cleared its first hurdle Monday when the measure passed through the House Appropriations Committee.

House Bill 1033 creates the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund, commonly called WISE a $40 million pool of money Louisiana schools would compete over. Institutions would be able to draw money from the fund based on the type of research they conduct and the number of students who graduate with degrees in fields that match the needs of the state’s economy.

The bill isn’t expected to face a lot of resistance in the Louisiana Legislature because it has the support of Gov. Bobby Jindal and the executives who run Louisiana’s public higher education institutions.

Louisiana House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, sponsored the bill. He said it represents the state’s higher education community speaking “with one loud, clear voice.”

The bill is a reaction to estimates that Louisiana is on the verge of a manufacturing boom driven by the low price of natural gas. Analysts say Louisiana can expect to see roughly $60 billion worth of new plant construction and expansions over the next several years.

Of an estimated 80,000 jobs that will be created by the boom, Kleckley said as many as 69,000 of those positions will likely require workers to have degrees related to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Under the WISE plan, the state’s colleges and universities will each compete for a share of the $40 million, with 80 percent of the money allocated based on the number and type of degrees students graduate with. The plan gives schools incentive to prepare students for employment in what the Louisiana Workforce Commission calls four- and five-star jobs, such as engineering and computer science.

Another 20 percent of the WISE funding will be allocated based on how active schools are in conducting research.

Colleges and universities are required to solicit 20 percent in matching funds from private sources before they are allowed to draw down their share of WISE funds.

University of Louisiana President Sandra Woodley called the WISE plan a “sea change” for higher education. She said the plan is one step toward filling a significant economic development need the state is facing.

“This is not really about higher ed,” Woodley said. “This is about creating a competitive Louisiana.”

Before the bill passed, however, legislators questioned whether the bill might lead to unintended consequences.

Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, questioned when the state could expect to start benefiting from the creation of the WISE fund.

The state’s “revenue picture has not increased at all,” Fannin said. “When you spend $40 million with no growth, someone else loses.”

Louisiana Board of Regents Chairman W. Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry said he expects results to start rolling in within the next two years. He predicted that the state’s network of community and technical colleges will have ramped up the number of students graduating in desired fields within that time.

State Rep. Charles “Bubba” Chaney, R-Rayville, questioned whether the WISE plan favors the state’s larger schools. It’s a concern that was previously brought up by Southern University President Ronald Mason. The thinking is that wealthier schools have the means to more heavily invest in the programs that produce four- and five-star jobs — putting them in a better position to collect a larger share of the WISE dollars.

Woodley, however, assured Chaney that extra money has been set aside to help the smaller schools compete.

State Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, urged institutions not to forget about the importance of degrees in the humanities amid the push to train workers in highly technical fields.

Colleges should aim to produce well-rounded graduates with the capacity for critical thinking, he said.