Jindal proposes increased funding to higher education

Gov. Bobby Jindal announced a plan Tuesday that would put an end to six straight years of budget cuts to higher education. The plan would theoretically give Louisiana’s colleges and universities their first dose of stable funding since the recession hit in 2008.

But even as the governor is set to unveil all the details of his plan on Friday, there is no guarantee he will get what he wants. Jindal’s proposal is just the starting point in very long budget negotiations among lawmakers that will unfold between now and early June.

During an afternoon news conference at LSU, Jindal described his plan as a $142 million funding increase to higher education.

While it’s technically true that under Jindal’s plan higher education institutions will have that much more money to work with compared with last year, nearly $88 million of that funding will come from students in the form of tuition increases allowed under the 2010 GRAD Act law.

The law allows schools to raise tuition 10 percent each year provided they meet certain performance benchmarks including improved graduation and retention rates.

But during the lean economic times of the past few years, schools would raise tuition under their GRAD Act authority, only to have lawmakers turn around and strip them of the same amount of state general fund dollars — erasing any gains the schools made by raising tuition.

Jindal’s plan would put an end to that practice.

Outside of the tuition increases that Jindal wants schools to keep, the governor’s plan represents a roughly $54 million increase in state funding to higher education. Between $12 million and $14 million of those dollars have been set aside for various projects, while the remaining $40 million will be put into a pool that colleges and universities will compete over.

In higher education circles, they call it the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy fund, or the WISE plan. It’s part of a collaboration with the state Department of Economic Development and the Louisiana Workforce Commission. It’s meant to be part of an overall push to match the work that schools do with the needs of the state’s economy.

Higher education leaders have been negotiating with Jindal’s staffers over the past several weeks. They made a formal request in a letter sent to the governor on Thursday.

“What it really translates into is a better future for our sons and daughters,” Jindal said. “It means our children can graduate and pursue their dreams right here in Louisiana. We’re thrilled that we’re able to make these investments in higher education.

The plan would:

Maintain the current level of funding to colleges and universities, putting an end to six straight years of budget cuts, totaling roughly $700 million.

Ensure schools are able to keep the money gained from tuition increases.

Set up a system in which schools would essentially compete for a share of the $40 million. Schools that produce graduates in fields that are expected to propel the state’s economy forward would get a larger share of the money.

Establish what is called baseline funding for each student. This means that the amount of money schools have available to spend per student would roughly match up with the same amount of funding peer schools in the South have available.

Earmark a portion of the money to reward schools for the research they conduct.

Require matching funds. For example, a school that is in line to get $1 million based on the above criteria would first have to raise $200,000 in private investment before receiving its share of public dollars.

Tuesday’s news conference marks the first time in years that the governor committed to giving higher education leaders what they’ve been asking for. Those same leaders have long said schools should be rewarded or punished based on how well they prepare students to compete in the state’s economy.

The problem, they say, is that schools need stable state funding in order to do what they’re supposed to do.

LSU System President F. King Alexander said the WISE plan puts Louisiana in line with national trends where more and more funding for colleges and universities is being tied to their performance. He added that the effort to get students into high-demand areas of study gives them an advantage over their counterparts who graduate and can’t immediately find a job in a field that will help them pay down any debt they’ve incurred.

“This couldn’t happen at a better time for our students, to graduate in high-demand fields of study and have careers waiting for them,” Alexander said.

Southern University President Ronald Mason said Southern has been retooling its academic programs over the past several years, trying to offer the kinds of jobs that mesh with the state’s needs.

Calling the plan “an ambitious” one that he supports, Mason added that he’s concerned about the possibility that it will deepen a divide that already exists between the state’s wealthy institutions and the not-so-wealthy schools.

Because a big part of the plan would funnel money into a competitive system where schools are rewarded for producing graduates in certain fields, Mason said the schools with lots of resources have the advantage of investing more into those fields, therefore guaranteeing that they will get a larger share of the pie going forward.

Mason said he’d prefer a system where all schools could compete equally.

“I’d take a good portion of this money and put it into low-wealth schools so that more schools are able to produce the types of graduates we need in this state, so it’s not just one or two schools,” he said.