Largess for Louisiana's Colleges

March 16, 2007

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco on Thursday proposed pouring more than $200 million in new funds into the state's public higher education system in 2008, part of what she called "the single largest increased investment in education in Louisiana's recent history."

The proposed new funds include about $50 million in pay increases for faculty members and other employees, $10 million to help institutions that were affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita recruit and retain faculty members, and $15 million to create the state's first meaningful need-based financial aid program, aimed both at traditional-aged students from low-income families and adults who have been out of college at least three years.

For anyone who has been reading newspaper accounts about New Orleans's seemingly slow recovery from the destructive storms of 2005, the idea that Lousiana would have lots of new money to spend on higher education (or anything else) might seem surprising. But the state is actually in the midst of a construction-related rebound that is expected to last four to five years, as insurance settlements are flowing and an estimated 200,000 homes are rebuilt. And Blanco has vowed to put at least of all newly appropriated state funds into education from preschool through college.

The recovery allowed state leaders to turn an initial 7 percent decrease in funds for higher education in 2006-7 into a 6 percent increase. But the proposed increase for 2007-8 -- $196 million in operating funds, plus the $15 million for need-based student grants -- would represent the biggest per-dollar and percentage increase since the days when Huey Long lavished funds on Louisiana State University.

"Our families deserve to know that Louisiana's children can stand shoulder to shoulder with any child in America and compete," Blanco said at a news conference Thursday. "I thank the education community and our legislative leaders for joining me to support this education agenda, and I look forward to working with our legislators to see this historic budget through to the end." Blanco and her predecessor as governor, Mike Foster, have helped Louisiana in recent years top a list of states in per-capita spending increases, said Joseph Savoie, Louisiana's commissioner of higher education.

"Of the money that we have, we're putting as much as we can into education at all levels," Savoie said. "The last several years, there has been a broad public acceptance of the notion that to change the state, we've got to invest in the capacity of our people."

Blanco's budget proposal for 2007-8 -- which because of Louisiana's strong governorship is likely to be enacted in close to its present form, if history is any guide -- would lift operating spending for higher education to $1.373 billion from $1.177 billion this year.

About $115 million of the new funds would go to institutions to bring per-student spending in line with peer institutions elsewhere, according to a state formula, and $33 million would cover such "mandated costs," as unfunded insurance premium increases and automatic step increases for employees, that often come out of institutional budgets. About $30 million would finance an average pay increase for faculty members of about 5 percent, and about $22 million would make possible an additional across-the-board, $1,500 pay raise for non-faculty staff.

Amid a range of other initiatives, the most significant might be the creation of Louisiana's first significant program of need-based financial aid. The state is spending about $120 million this year on its lottery-funded merit-based program, the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students, but it spends about $1 million, among the least in the country, on aid aimed at needy students.

"We've been pretty miserly, and in one of the poorest states in country, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Savoie said.

Given Louisiana's current situation, that could be downright disastrous, he added. Despite significant recruitment and other efforts, the state is facing a deficit of 25,000 fewer college students than it had in 2005, amd it is expecting 3,000 to 4,000 fewer high graduates each year for the next five years, and has about 56,000 fewer elementary and secondary students in its schools than it did before Hurricane Katrina.

"We've got a very serious feedstock, pipeline challenge for at least another decade," said Savoie. Given those shortfalls, increasing financial aid for low-income and adult students is one possible way to bring more students into higher education. The program -- which is designed to spend $60 million over four years -- would give grants to students from low-income backgrounds who are either first-time freshmen or adults who have not been enrolled in a college for at least three years. 

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