Are there too many universities in Louisiana?

Barely 350,000 people live in northeast Louisiana. But drive the lonesome 30-mile stretch of highway from Monroe to Grambling and you will pass three public universities, all offering degrees in everything from kinesiology to music to world languages.

It’s quite a smorgasbord for an area that has just 8 percent of the state’s population. It’s also perhaps the clearest example of what many observers say is an oversupply of campuses in Louisiana, creating expensive redundancy in a state where higher education has suffered brutal cuts during the past eight years.

The skeptics point out that Louisiana has 14 publicly funded four-year schools compared with Florida’s 12, despite having less than a quarter of the population Florida has. On top of that — and partly as a result of it — Louisiana has only four universities with at least 10,000 students. Four others have fewer than 5,000.

This makes no sense to Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport demographer who has spent years vainly trying to get state policymakers to consider whether Louisiana is stretching itself thin with the number of public universities it maintains. “There’s nothing that shows the future holds anything except the overcapacity that we already have,” Stonecipher said. “A lot of us feel like you have to do consolidation, but nobody talks about that.”

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Whether or not Stonecipher is correct about a higher education glut, it is certainly true that merging or closing campuses has become something of a taboo subject. Years of budget cuts have forced questions about whether Louisiana would be better off with fewer, better schools. But the idea has gained almost no political traction.

The logic of going with fewer campuses is straightforward. Having more independent institutions means paying more university presidents, provosts, deans and other administrators, as well as maintaining expensive facilities like sports stadiums and auditoriums.

The three schools in northeast Louisiana each have a president; collectively, they earn nearly $1 million. That’s almost twice what LSU pays its president each year, though he’s in charge of more students than the three universities combined.

Although the state Board of Regents has routinely tasked its staff with ferreting out duplicative academic options, data from the state show that schools still offer many of the same degrees and tend to have the same popular programs. And, as with the presidents, there are multiple administrators doing the job that one might be able to do if campuses were merged.

Facing similar budget cuts during the recent recession, other states have successfully broached the subject. The University System of Georgia approved plans in 2013 to consolidate eight institutions into four. Plans have been approved since then to merge two more, under a set of guiding principles that stress improved quality as well as financial efficiencies.

Some policymakers in Louisiana remain wary of the idea, however, worried that closing campuses could mean limiting access to education in a state that already is struggling to meet workforce demands.

What’s more, college campuses serve as points of pride, as well as economic engines, for the communities around them. A proposal for merging the historically black Southern University at New Orleans and the predominantly white University of New Orleans in 2011 ignited a divisive controversy that ultimately scuttled the idea.

Others say that in a state with one of the lowest educational attainment rates in the nation, there’s no reason to close campuses.

“Higher education is not the problem in Louisiana; it’s part of the solution,” said state Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo.

Rallo also pointed out some of the practical difficulties standing in the way. Many campuses still hold debt on buildings — particularly residence halls — that they continue to pay off as they bring in revenue from students. So not all of the costs associated with running a campus would dry up automatically.

“This notion that you wave a wand and close for some dollar value isn’t a reality,” he said.

Robert Travis Scott, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, argues that even if the state doesn’t close campuses or even merge them, university administrators could at least find some ways to limit redundancy.

“Four-year schools bear part of the responsibility for the (fiscal) situation we’re in,” Scott said. “Their insistence on not consolidating on a regional basis, on keeping multiple silos … there’s no central back-office administration for a lot of these schools.

“There are a lot of things they could do to make their operations more efficient, and they’re not doing them.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .

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