If the reports about the level of cuts that might be dealt to higher education this year are anywhere close to accurate, it should send chills down the spines of the citizens of Louisiana. First, some perspective:
Over the last seven years, state funding to higher education has been cut by some $700 million.
Tuition has increased by more than 50-percent.
Much of that tuition increase never made it to the colleges, but was used to balance other areas of the state budget.
Class sizes have increased.
Time to degree is longer.
Top faculty have left.
Recruiting new professors is all but impossible.
And all of this is happening as we’re gearing up to try to develop a workforce to fuel an industrial expansion the size of which we haven’t seen in a generation and post-secondary education is supposed to be the one delivering it.
It’s against this backdrop that we’re now looking at a cut to higher education possibly in the range of another $300-$400 million.
In one year.
It doesn’t take an accountant to figure out that would be devastating. Moody’s Investors Service said as much recently when it revised Louisiana’s financial outlook to negative.
After five years of the deepest funding cuts to public higher education in the nation and significant expense reductions, (Louisiana) universities are ill-equipped to face additional credit stress.”
Or any other financial stress, for that matter. Moody’s went on to point out other issues facing higher education, including increasing retirement costs, concerns about declining enrollment and a highly price-sensitive student population that can’t afford much more in the way of tuition increases.
And, oh yes, there’s also the issue of the ever increasing cost of TOPS.
The point is that higher education in our state is in an extremely precarious situation right now and in many ways it very future is hanging in the balance. It has literally been gutted beyond anything we have seen elsewhere in the country, while hefty increases in student tuition have largely gone, not to colleges, but to support other areas of state government.
Now, let’s be clear. It’s likely that when the executive budget is released in a few days the cuts to higher education won’t be as onerous as the lead up has suggested. But it is also likely that the size of the cut will be reduced using funding mechanisms that the Legislature won’t ultimately buy into. The result will be pure chaos.
So what’s going to happen? No one knows, but here’s a guess. The Legislature will spend the entire session looking for ways to raise revenues. The administration will balk at most of them unless they can find a way to define them as “revenue neutral,” or a fee for service. Lawmakers will piecemeal something together one last time that doesn’t spare anybody, but softens the blow for higher education and health care.
And then they will pass a budget that is supposed to last for a year, but will run out of money somewhere around January – right when the new governor takes office.
And sadly, six years later than it should have been, the real work of rebuilding and restructuring higher education will begin.