College leaders seek stable funding

The number of LSU students interested in pursuing an engineering degree is up 33 percent in recent years. The university also just raised more than $50 million in private donations to build a first-class engineering complex.

But if the petroleum engineering program is any indication, the department has a problem: There are 82 engineering students for every professor.

Those numbers were part of a report LSU President F. King Alexander and his higher education colleagues gave to lawmakers in the House Appropriations Committee Monday.

One by one, higher education executives talked about the toll six straight years of state budget cuts totaling $700 million have had on their universities.

They made the case that under-funding colleges and universities is akin to putting handcuffs on the state’s economic future.

Alexander said LSU is trying to meet the demand for the state’s future economy partly by upping the number of engineering graduates from 650 every year to 900.

But, he said, unstable funding from the state will undermine that goal.

“Your support is badly needed,” he said. “It’s badly needed by all of us.”

Alexander’s statement came in the middle of a larger conversation over $40 million in new funds Gov. Bobby Jindal plans to make available to Louisiana’s colleges and universities. Schools would be rewarded with a share of that money for producing graduates in fields, including engineering and computer science, that are expected to be in high demand over the next several years.

The fund is called the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy fund. If it passes in the Legislature, it would be a significant gift to colleges and universities that have borne the brunt of the state and nation’s sluggish economy.

To get a share of the money, each school would have to work with private businesses to come up with a 20 percent match.

So, if a school is in line to get $1 million in WISE funds, administrators would first have to raise $200,000 in private investment before receiving its share of private dollars.

And while higher education administrators said they would welcome the money, they said they need a stable source of funding from the state, first.

“We have to recruit new faculty, we need funds to recruit students, we need scholarships, we need internships,” University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said. “Stable funding and the WISE fund really are a package deal.”

Southern University President Ronald Mason said the state needs to make a conscientious effort to protect university funding.

“With the unprecedented number of jobs coming, higher ed has a challenge,” he said. “We are the job producers ... we need to shore up the job producers.”