As Louisiana’s public colleges and universities brace for another significant round of budget cuts, higher education officials said during a public forum Monday they need more autonomy to improve their institutions without the hassle of bureaucracy.

But while pleading for sovereignty, those officials also agreed during the Acadiana Press Club luncheon that privatizing higher education is a bad idea that would lead to unequal access for future generations of students.

It’s the paradox plaguing the state’s higher education systems, which — in a worst-case scenario — face up to a $608 million reduction in state funding this year, Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo said.

“I don’t want to leave people with despair … but we have to come to grips with the numbers that are there as well as the numbers that we believe will be there,” Rallo said.

And while dealing with ever-bleeding budgets, the state’s higher education systems must also confront the facts: The state ranks in the bottom five nationally in degrees awarded and dollars spent per student, which makes it difficult to compete with other schools nationwide, LSU President F. King Alexander said.

Budget estimates at this point could reduce state funding for flagship LSU from 13 percent to about 3 percent, Alexander said, noting the university has lost 2,000 employees and 363 faculty members over the last decade.

“These are almost cartoon-like numbers — and that’s before another single cut happens,” Alexander said. “It’s not the time to pull our investments back.”

South Louisiana Community College Chancellor Natalie Harder noted that investments in higher education produce taxpaying, salary-earning citizens who ultimately bolster the economy.

University of Louisiana system President Sandra Woodley also urged the state to reconsider its higher education investments to prevent privatization, through which “only the relatively wealthy will be able to participate” in earning a college degree.

Woodley also said it’s a myth to think closing or merging college campuses could be part of the solution, as it would ultimately cost more to educate the different “universes” of students that each institution serves.

“It’s important to have multiple strategies for every kind of university in the state,” each of which needs to double the number of degrees awarded annually, Woodley said.

One solution could involve freeing higher education institutions to make necessary investments without having to seek approval from multiple state agencies.

“We have auditors who audit auditors who audit auditors,” University of Louisiana at Lafayette President Joseph Savoie said.

Woodley said “it is harder to do business” in Louisiana than the other four states in which she’s worked.

Allowing higher education institutions the freedom to set their own tuition rates is another need the leaders expressed at Monday’s forum.

“We want the flexibility to charge as much as our peers,” Alexander said.

Both LSU and UL-Lafayette are also looking to their athletics programs as a source of revenue.

UL-Lafayette is setting records when it comes to athletics paraphernalia and clothing sales, and enrollment continues to grow in part because of its increasingly successful athletics programs that are headed toward self-sufficiency, Savoie said.

LSU’s main campus receives a guaranteed $8 million from its athletics program each year, but Alexander said his administration is looking at ways to increase that amount.

“There is no athletic event without the university,” he said.

Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook.