Our Views: Near top of bad list

If there is any good news in the 2014 Legislature, it is that there seems to be a sense that Louisiana must stop the bleeding in higher education.

It is more than past time.

Louisiana is near the top of one particularly bad list, state aid to colleges and universities.

A report by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Louisiana has cut state support for higher education more than almost any other state since 2008, when revenues were hit by a combination of a national recession and poorly timed tax cuts in the first year of the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“Even more troubling, while most states are starting to reinvest resources in higher education, Louisiana is one of only a handful of states that continue to make cuts — putting us further behind our neighbors in the race to build a 21st Century workforce,” commented budget analyst Steve Spires of the Louisiana Budget Project, the CBPP’s state counterpart.

Adjusted for inflation, between 2008 and 2014, Louisiana cut state support per student by 43 percent. Obviously, hard times hurt all over the country, but only Arizona cut more than Louisiana on a percentage basis, the new report said.

In the current fiscal year which ends June 30, per-student funding for higher education is down almost 4 percent, or $255 a head. Other states, Spires noted, see the value in economic and social progress, “and it isn’t just states like Massachusetts and California that are reinvesting in education. Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia are also taking steps in the right direction, while per-student spending in Louisiana remains 20 percent below the Southern average.”

The Legislature is now facing decisions on a budget for the new fiscal year 2015, which begins this July 1. The good news is that the Jindal administration and lawmakers appear to be willing to let universities keep the money they are allowed to raise in higher tuition. There is a modest additional investment in workforce-related initiatives; although that fund has a $40 million face value, because of shuffling funds in the budget the actual increase is closer to $10 million.

A drop in the bucket, in other words, compared to the loss of state support.

Tuition has increased at four-year universities by 52 percent, a top-10 finish among the states. The fiscal 2014 increase was $585 on average, tops in the nation.

“What makes the data so concerning is that there is a strong relationship between the share of a state’s workforce with a bachelor’s degree and median wages — far stronger than any correlation between wages and tax rates or abstract ‘business climate’ rankings,” Spires said. “Louisiana has one of the lowest levels of college attainment in the nation, and this is a major reason we are the third-poorest state.”

Indeed it is, and the post-2008 reversal of a quarter-century trend of increasing support for higher education is one of the reasons why long-term prospects for Louisiana’s economy are not as bright as we would like them to be.