Jindal signs WISE legislation

Louisiana colleges and universities will be able to compete for additional funding that’s intended to encourage innovation and commitment to key fields, thanks to a new program the state Legislature approved this session.

Gov. Bobby Jindal signed House Bill 1033 during a ceremony at LSU on Thursday that drew higher education leaders from across the state.

It creates the $40 million Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund, or WISE Fund, an idea Jindal championed before the start of the session.

“The WISE Fund will allow our schools to meet the growing demands on our economy,” Jindal said Thursday. “This investment, this $40 million, will help our universities and community and technical colleges train our students for the jobs that are coming to Louisiana.”

Under the WISE Fund structure, schools will be in competition with each other, largely based on the degrees and certificates they produce in high-demand fields, such as computer science and engineering. A smaller portion of the funding — about 20 percent — will be distributed based on federally funded research that the colleges perform.

To qualify for any funding, schools will have to pony up a 20 percent private match from a business partner, either cash or an in-kind contribution meant to foster better ties to the business community.

Jindal called it “one of the most important bills that passed this session. … This will be one of the important legacies of my administration.”

The creation of the fund has been lauded by university and college leaders since Jindal announced plans for it earlier this year. Several, including the leaders of the Southern University System, LSU and the University of Louisiana System, spoke at Thursday’s event, praising the WISE plan.

“This is a great step to getting students off to a lifetime of career success right here in Louisiana,” LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander said.

Alexander said the research component also will help develop new industry in Louisiana.

“All this does is fuel those ideas, fuel that innovation and fuel the types of graduates that we need in Louisiana,” he said.

Some had expressed concern earlier this year that the program would favor the state’s largest institutions that are better equipped for research. Separate from TOPS, the state budget gives an additional $6.1 million to community colleges and a $6.5 million boost to Grambling and Southern University. Leaders say that will help those schools better position themselves for the competitive WISE funds.

“We expect every school to be able to compete for the WISE Fund dollars — not just the four-year schools,” Jindal said. “We think every school will be able to participate.”

He named several existing partnerships along the lines of what WISE is supposed to foster: IBM is partnering with the LSU School of Engineering; the state recently partnered with University of New Orleans and GE Capital for the creation of the Software Engineering Apprenticeship Program. Southern University recently partnered with Genesis Energy to create a $100,000 scholarship fund and address the company’s workforce needs.

“Schools all over the state — large and small, two-year and four-year schools — already have great partnerships,” Jindal said.

The competitive nature of the funding is particularly unique.

Monty Sullivan, the head of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said he thinks that it could become a model for the nation. “The WISE Fund is very simply an investment in the people of Louisiana,” he said.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, a Lake Charles Republican who sponsored HB1033, said its creation took work from a lot of interested parties but came together.

“It’s a new way to invest in higher ed,” Kleckley said. “Everyone in the state of Louisiana will win from this piece of legislation.”

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