With less than three weeks remaining in the legislative session, Gov. Bobby Jindal continues to drain money from higher education. Few probably realize exactly how much higher ed has lost under Jindal.
Jindal's administration has cut funding to local campuses by more than $111 million since 2008, according to data sets released by the Board of Regents. On average, he has cut the budgets of metro New Orleans' public universities and community colleges more than 47 percent.
The situation is worse in Baton Rouge, where LSU has sustained $125 million in cuts over the past five years, with more reductions pending.
LSU Interim President William Jenkins describes the situation as severe. "I want to tell you something that I think is startling," Jenkins says of the $109 million budgeted for the fiscal year that begins July 1. "It looks like next year, the state appropriations at LSU ... will in fact be less than the unfunded mandates that we get from the state."
The Baton Rouge campus must get creative, from opening the largest Barnes and Noble bookstore on any campus in America to funding parking improvements with donations. "We have to use the private sector," Jenkins says. "There's not a question about that. We have to provide additional scholarships. We have to become more effective. But try as we may on this slope that we're on, the downward slide that we're on, it's going to be very hard to make up that difference."
Locally, the differences are stacking up. Consider the following:
• LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans: $117.9 million was budgeted in 2008; for 2013-14, the proposed figure is $70.7 million — a decrease of $47.2 million (40 percent) over the past five years.
• Southern University at New Orleans: $15.6 million was budgeted in 2008; the proposed budget has $5.9 million — a decrease of $9.6 million (61 percent).
• University of New Orleans: $70.8 million was budgeted in 2008; the proposed budget has $30.1 million — a decrease of $40.6 million, or 57 percent.
• Delgado Community College: $41.6 million was budgeted five years ago; the proposed budget has $27.9 million — a difference of $13.7 million, or 32 percent.
If you consider these cuts a funding crisis for higher education, you're not hearing Jindal or most legislators talk about it. Over the past five years, state general funding for higher education has declined by more than $1.2 billion.
Other challenges are being ignored as well. For example, the TOPS scholarship program will cost the state $220 million next fiscal year. To cover that sum, the administration is pulling money from a tobacco settlement account, making the state's general fund contribution the smallest ever.
Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell says if the program isn't scaled back, costs will soon jump to $340 million a year. "Right now just letting it go on and on and on will definitely be the golden egg that hatches and eats all that's left out there," he said.
Deep cuts mean fewer employees. In 2008 there were 41,101 employees staffing Louisiana's public colleges and universities. Today there are 37,575. Tenure-track professors are leaving in droves, and student-teacher ratios have shot up. Mandated costs have risen nearly 26 percent. Overall, Louisiana now has its lowest level of state investment in higher education since the 1950s.
The story, sadly enough, is far from over. Jindal began the budget process this year by cobbling together one-time funds to prop up higher education, which of course is a recurring expense. The state constitution prohibits using one-time funds for recurring expenses, but governors and legislators typically ignore that prohibition. The House version of the budget has replaced most one-time money with spending cuts, targeted tax break reductions and a proposed amnesty program for late taxpayers.
It's unknown what the Senate will do with the budget, although senators generally side with Jindal, who seems intent on making public colleges and universities rely more and more on private funds.
Many would agree that higher-ed tuitions have been too low, but public colleges and universities — even with tuition hikes — have not been able to keep pace with Jindal's cuts. It has made their collective future look more and more like their distant (and dismal) past.
— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.