Letter: Facts differ from perception on higher education funds

In reference to the query of my professional colleague Pearson Cross, reported in The Advocate about “Why are we not out in the streets?” concerning spending reductions in Louisiana higher education from 2008 to the present, the answer is quite simple: These haven’t been drastic, while portrayal of them as crippling to higher education has created a skeptical public on this issue.

Higher education officials are wont to lament that there are “$700 million fewer” from the state to higher education in this period, but the facts present a somewhat different and less simplistic picture.

In fiscal year 2008 higher education spent $2.814 billion, while in fiscal 2014 it is budgeted to spend $2.629 billion — a reduction of only 7 percent over seven years — actually $450 million fewer in state general fund and fund transfers dollars. When factoring number students and their level of studies, it’s a reduction of about 11 percent in adjusted terms.

With much of the slack being taken up by hikes in tuition and fees — this having gone from 26 percent to 48 percent of revenues — as of the most recent figures, Louisiana still ranks fourth-lowest in the country in average tuition and fees. While we have been increasing tuition since, so have other states, but the latest data had the state’s media tuition at only 58 percent of the national median.

And, with room to grow, as the state ranks 35th in median household income, relatively tuition comes across as a bargain and puts to rest the myth that the state’s residents are “too poor” to afford more. Keep in mind, as well, that a fifth of state students pay no tuition at all and only marginal fees because of TOPS.

If there’s any fault here, it’s that policy makers have not allowed tuition to increase faster. Yet, lawmakers have a right to question the efficiency of higher education spending in Louisiana, as it ranks 18th-highest per capita in the country.

Coupled with among the lowest completion and retention rates in the country, it’s not unreasonable to ask for some belt-tightening, although legislators bear some blame for failure to address an overbuilt system through mergers, demotions and consolidations of institutions, which means the state ranks in the top five of all in terms of number of institutions per capita.

It’s this bloat and its consequences of spreading out resources across too many institutions, chasing too few students for baccalaureate study that makes it seem to many in higher education that they suffer dire, unwarranted privation. While facts show otherwise, not being aware of these specifics has not stopped the mass public from intuitively grasping this, and, thereby, discounting the Chicken Little rhetoric.

Jeffrey Sadow

associate professor of political science, LSU-Shreveport