Zurik: Higher education budgets hit new lows in Louisiana

Published: Feb. 18, 2016 at 2:36 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 18, 2016 at 4:23 AM CST
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Photos by LSU journalism professor Robert Mann shows missing and water-damaged ceiling tiles,...
Photos by LSU journalism professor Robert Mann shows missing and water-damaged ceiling tiles, aged furniture and other building issues at LSU's Middleton Library. Baton Rouge

NATCHITOCHES, LA (WVUE) - You get a sense of the higher education budget pinch in Louisiana simply by entering many campus buildings, and seeing neglect in these places where your kids go to learn, to grow up.

"A lot of the equipment is really old," one student tells us.

"It's a huge issue," says Jim Henderson, president of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. "We have buildings that were built in the 60's that were built with a 30-year life span.  Guess what: It's 50 years past the 60's.  Maintenance is not enough sometimes to keep those facilities up."

Photos from LSU's Middleton Library, showing persistent carpet stains, mismatched floor tiles, and aged furnishings, could be taken at most universities across the state, Northwestern State included.

"How do you find dollars to fix a pothole when you're trying to find dollars to provide quality instruction?" Dr. Henderson wonders.

During the budget crunch of the past eight years, the state has placed infrastructure work - building repairs - on the waiting list.  The higher education system has a backlog of repairs that totals $1.5 billion at last report.

"We are operating now with half the budget we had five years ago," says Joseph Rallo, Louisiana's commissioner of higher education.

University funding - money sent by the state to the schools - has been slashed.  Since 2008, the state legislature has cut higher education funding by 41 percent.  According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, no other state in the country has cut more.

Looking closer, at the student level, the state used to send $9,426 per student.  That has plunged to $5,606.

These cuts by the legislature have forced colleges to do cutting of their own.

"They say get through the fat, down to the meat, down to the bone," says Bruce Murphy, president of Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. "And it's all the way down, as far as it can go."

In some ways, these schools are taking a little off the bone, too.  Some 5,000 professors and staff and numerous academic programs have been cut.

"Eliminating programs, as we've done across the state, really has eliminated choice for a lot of students," Henderson acknowledges.  "At the same time, the student is paying a much larger share of the cost of expending."

Universities have tried to fill most of the budget gap by increasing tuition. Since 2008, yearly tuition and fees have gone up, on average, by $3,454 a year - a 94 percent increase.

"It definitely is more expensive, especially when they want you to live on campus," one student tells us at Louisiana Tech, in Ruston.  "Their housing is really expensive, too."

Louisiana wants to recruit smart people from other states. But out-of-state tuition has shot up, too.  A year's worth of classes, two semesters, at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette costs an out-of-state student $22,268, and $26,877 at Louisiana State University.

"I don't know if we could go up another dollar without starting to lose students," Henderson tells us, adding that it has become very difficult to recruit new out-of-state students and faculty from outside the state, too.

Every university has mandated yearly costs for auditing, insurance, retirement and other services - money that eventually must be paid back to the state. Right now, the state gives Nicholls State $15,675,930 a year; Nicholls turns around and pays back $14,789,965 of that money.  So Nicholls nets less than $1 million in state funding to pay for professors, building repairs and campus police. Universities self-generate the rest of their money from tuition, fees, dorms and student unions.

"If you are continuing to lessen the amount of money that you get, you give back even more and students are paying more," Dr. Murphy says. "There are probably campuses I could say, were these cuts were to come to pass, that would receive less than 10 percent from the state. At what point are you public, and what point are you quasi-private?"

More cuts could be coming, too, with the state facing an $870 million deficit.

"Even though we've lost 5,000 employees over the past five years - the largest number of any state agency -  the faculty are [sic] continuing to teach, try to do the right thing, support staff continue to work," Commissioner Rallo says. "So we are at the point, though, we can no longer continue to do that. We simply don't have the people."

Higher ed officials say more cuts would be devastating. Campuses could furlough some employees.

"Basically things like summer school more than likely will not occur," Rallo says.  "We're looking at a lot of support networks for students. For example, when you go to the medical vendor, the healthcare center, those will probably close.  But that's what 'devastating' means, when you're looking at three months."

Dr. Murphy says, for a school like Nicholls, increased cuts would basically equal the university paying more money back to the state. Essentially, Nicholls could be paying the state more than it receives from it.

If that happens, it means universities will use tuition money to fix neglected buildings - responsibilities that one university leader says the state should be funding.

"Students now are paying money, going into the state general to fix roads or do whatever it is that the state does with it," Murphy tells us. "So we're sending more money back to the state than the state's sending us, if this goes through."

Students say they already can see the impact.

"Professors are doing their best to allow for academic opportunity," one student tells us. "But you can definitely see there's a strain on the departments."

Professors have warned some students of the dire situation.

"Some days, they won't be able to teach us because of budget cuts," says a student at Northwestern State, "so some days they won't be in the classroom."

Education has been called a passport to the future.  But with facilities that look like these, and with cuts that have raised tuition and limited course options, many students wonder where a degree from a Louisiana college, their passport, will actually take them in the future.

"We come here for a premier education, and Tech definitely offers that," says a student in Ruston. "But when you're kind of restricted, in the sense of what you can take for courses and electives, as well as how much time you can put into your research, it definitely hurts the overall experience."

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