WASHINGTON — Louisiana’s community colleges chief touted to Congress on Wednesday the ability of the state’s two-year colleges to grow and become more efficient during rough economic times.
Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May was one of four guest speakers invited before the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training to discuss “Keeping College Within Reach: Exploring State Efforts to Curb Costs.”
Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, said states nationwide are turning to tuition hikes to offset ongoing state budget cuts to colleges in lean economic times.
“The state fiscal landscape has changed dramatically in recent years,” Pattison said. “Even with a recovering economy, the fiscal environment for state higher education support is expected to be very different and much more constrained compared to past decades.”
The same problems apply substantially in Louisiana, but May argued that the state’s young two-year schools have grown to 111,000 students — up from 71,000 in 2006 — as the state placed more emphasis on community colleges even while state funding for two-year schools is down 37 percent in four years.
“While the changing funding model creates great challenges,” May said, “I believe it is in times like this that community and technical colleges shine.”
State spending on higher education in Louisiana has declined by more than 26 percent — about $426 million total — since budget cuts began in late 2008. That amount grows to $615 million if the initial federal stimulus dollars previously used to prop up higher education aren’t counted, as noted by the Louisiana Democratic Party.
May said afterward that he is concerned higher education budget cuts may continue later this year, especially in light of a remaining hole from federal Medicaid matching dollars recently axed by Congress.
The loss of those funds likely leaves colleges more vulnerable going forward, he said.
Higher education funding in Louisiana was boosted significantly under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and continued in 2008 under Gov. Bobby Jindal until economic problems began and budget cuts started late in the year.
Although Louisiana still has relatively low tuition levels, the state has repeatedly turned to tuition hikes on students to offset much, but far from all, of the cuts.
Nationally, annual tuition and fees at public universities have increased 72 percent since 2001, said subcommittee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.
“Meanwhile, the student debt load recently surpassed $1 trillion — exceeding total outstanding credit card debt — for the first time in history,” Foxx added.
Largely as a result of increased tuition levels, federal spending and financial aid for students has increased 155 percent in 10 years, Foxx said.
May said that policies are in place to help Louisiana community college students graduate more quickly, transfer to universities more efficiently and access more financial aid, despite the increased tuition levels.
The incentives did not exist for two-year college students to complete associate degrees before transferring to universities before, May said. In part, the state’s community colleges have only graduated fewer than 5 percent of their students in three years in the past.
Adding online programs is another source of efficiency, May said. Louisiana’s average student in online programs in community and technical colleges is eight years out of high school and taking classes while balancing a family and a job, he said.
The question is, “How do we get more people in the door, recognizing the funding constraints?” May said.
He said that consolidating offices and services has saved his system about $30 million.
May also is representing the new Rebuilding America’s Middle Class coalition of two-year colleges nationwide.
Stan Jones, president of the Complete College America organization, said the federal focus on giving students “access” to college has proven successful for 60 years. Now, the focus must also rest on graduating and completing students more efficiently with fewer resources available, he said.