Leaders discuss how to dole out $40M college fund

It remains unclear how a $40 million fund that the Louisiana Legislature created this year to spur workforce development will be divvied up among the state’s universities and colleges.

The WISE Council, a group of state workforce and college system leaders that oversees the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund, met for a second time on Wednesday for nearly two and a half hours, but resolved little in a debate over what criteria will be used to dole out the money that colleges and universities will be competing for.

Leaders say they hope to have a framework in place so schools can start preparing electronic applications for funding by next month. The council is slated to meet three more times in August to hash out details.

“There is a limited resource, and how do we distribute those dollars?” Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Monty Sullivan said. “That’s a realistic discussion for us to have.”

The state Board of Regents ultimately will decide which campuses get the money, based on input from the council.

Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed for the WISE Fund’s creation before the start of the session, and it received overwhelming support at the State Capitol. It is largely based on the degrees and certificates schools produce in high-demand fields. 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 money from the fund, schools will have to put up a 20 percent private match in cash or an in-kind contribution from a business partner — a move meant to foster better ties to the business community.

There’s no guarantee that every campus that seeks money from the WISE Fund will get it, though at least $2 million will go to each system, per Wednesday’s discussions.

All council members agreed that the $40 million won’t be enough to cover all needs.

This week’s debate centered on job outlook, a key component in the fund’s disbursement. With the money tied directly to high-demand fields, the method used to determine which degrees and skills the state needs most ultimately will sway where the money goes.

Members of the council went back and forth discussing whether the fund should lean toward today’s job needs or long-term expectations, before the group eventually moved on without action.

“I do think there is a need for us to consider the point in time where we are today,” said Sullivan, whose system would benefit from the short-term outlook. “We need to recognize the economy that we live in right now.”

LSU System President and Chancellor F. King Alexander said some coveted businesses routinely overlook Louisiana for development projects because the state ranks low nationally in the number of college degree holders, especially in high-demand fields. He advocated a long-term view to foster those industries, which likely would benefit schools like LSU.

“There are companies all over the world comparing Minnesota with Louisiana,” Alexander said. “One objective is to show progress on an annual basis in climbing that ladder ... It’s really all long-term at the end of the day.”

The WISE Council is set to meet again Aug. 18, and a group of industry leaders have planned a public forum to discuss the program later this month. Leaders say they want to have guidelines in place to submit to the Board of Regents by its Aug. 27 meeting, so that the framework will be in place by September.

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