Our Views: College cuts on pause

This is apparently Gov. Bobby Jindal’s idea of largesse to Louisiana’s colleges: You guys get to keep what you earn.

The colleges have one more year of increases available to them under what is known as the GRAD Act, allowing the raising of tuition in exchange for meeting some performance benchmarks. Previously, the big tuition increases were used to offset deep cuts by Jindal in the money granted to the colleges from the general fund.

The money “saved” from the general fund was spent on other priorities.

Balancing the budget on the backs of students was not popular with the colleges, but they had little choice. As a state, we have abandoned the long-term policy — under three governors, Republican and Democrat — of increasing higher education spending as an economic development strategy, akin to that used by states such as North Carolina.

In the just-concluded 2014 session, the complaints from colleges and economic development boosters led the governor and the Legislature to relent on cuts. It did not hurt that state revenues had gone up a bit, and some one-time money — including a business tax “amnesty” program — helped to balance the budget instead of taking the tuition money.

There is also a new Jindal-backed incentive fund that, at a face value of $40 million, is also not quite all it appears to be for colleges. Because some other funds were shifted, the net increase is about $11 million, to be used for specific workforce-related projects at schools across the state.

Not a bad idea, but not a lavishly funded one either. Nor is it a permanent fund, but one that has to be replenished every year — and next year the budget challenges are apt to be greater than this year’s.

“When you’ve had six straight years of budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts, just hitting the floor and reaching bottom and hopefully building the way back up is important,” Barry Erwin, president of the nonpartisan Council for A Better Louisiana, told The Associated Press.

Erwin added: “That’s unfortunate that we’re considering it a win that higher education didn’t get slashed again.”

We agree with Erwin. Since 2008, Louisiana’s public colleges have been cut by nearly $700 million in state financing. That’s real money.

And we wish that the governor and legislators would remember that this money is a means to an end, which is not only a better-educated population but the economic and social benefits that flow from it.

Louisiana’s college attainment is low, and it ought to be higher. Further, the state is seeking, through tax cuts for companies, to promote information technology and digital media industries. Where will the software engineers to be trained? Are Louisiana’s students to be out of the running for state-subsidized jobs, because universities can’t offer the quality programs to qualify them for employment?

To cut colleges at the same time is so obviously self-defeating that it raises the question of whether Louisiana has a tech strategy other than tax credits.