About a third of the money from the Jindal administration’s much-trumpeted WISE Fund has made its way to campuses — several months after colleges and universities developed plans for spending it.
Higher education leaders gave an update on the $40 million Workforce Investment for a Stronger Economy Fund, meant to strengthen programs to get more graduates in high-demand fields, during a Workforce Investment Council meeting at the State Capitol on Wednesday.
About a third of the fund came from unrestricted general revenue dollars, but the rest was filled with money from the state’s capital outlay fund, which isn’t available until June 30, and federal grants linked to Louisiana’s recovery from hurricanes Gustav and Ike. That money can only be used toward the benefit of 53 parishes affected by the hurricanes, and just over half of it must directly benefit people below certain income levels.
University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said the federal Community Development Block Grant recovery funding has created uncertainty in implementing WISE plans.
“We’re struggling a little bit with the source of funds,” she said. “We don’t even know if the plans we put together allow us to use those funds.”
That delay could mean a shift in plans — from more long-range goals to smaller, more immediate usage.
“Some of these plans will have to be revamped,” she said.
Meghan Parrish, spokeswoman for the Division of Administration, said state officials have been discussing the grant spending in phone conversations with the federal Department Housing and Urban Development this week and expect final approval in the coming weeks.
“We do expect to begin spending that money soon,” she said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal had pushed for the creation of the WISE Fund, a competitive pool of money tied to workforce development and research, ahead of last year’s legislative session.
His budget recommendation for the coming year, which was presented last week, would again set aside funding for WISE, though leaders cautioned that it relies even more heavily on the restricted CDBG funding. About 81 percent would come from that federal source under the governor’s proposal, while about 19 percent would come from general fund dollars.
“We really need flexible general fund dollars,” Woodley said.
She said schools aren’t sure whether they can hire faculty through the CDBG funding, and faculty can’t be hired without a long-term funding source.
“What we need most is money for faculty,” she said.
She said the money would still be used for scholarships, internship funding and grants, if it’s not able to be used for more long-ranging goals.
The money also likely will go to much-needed equipment and facility upgrades.
In proposals for the use of the funding, several schools had identified those types of one-time spending among their most pressing needs.
Southern University at New Orleans has planned to direct some of the money toward enhancing its computer information systems program with lab upgrades and assistantships that will help students pay for books and tuition.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette directed some of the funding toward dozens of new scholarships for students in computer science, engineering and nursing.
Meanwhile, LSU planned to direct much of its share toward tenure-track faculty positions that could face challenges under the spending model. LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to meet with the state’s congressional delegation, so he wasn’t able to address the issue before the council.
Southern University System President Ronald Mason said that WISE has led to fruitful partnerships with the business community and some local government.
“WISE has really given us the ability to enhance programs,” he said.