Louisiana colleges and universities have been given the green light to move forward with spending WISE Fund dollars tied to federal grants, as leaders say they have gotten word of federal approval.
“We’re going to be as prepared as possible to move when that (approval) comes in,” said Barbara Goodson, deputy state higher education commissioner for finance and administration, just hours before the federal award letter went out. “We want to be ready to go when it’s signed.”
The $40 million Workforce Investment for a Stronger Economy Fund has been trumpeted as one of the higher education hallmarks of last year’s session. The fund allowed schools to tap into additional money to boost high-demand fields and encouraged partnerships with local businesses. The WISE Council, which oversees that fund, held a status update meeting on Tuesday.
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.
College and university leaders have said questions over the restricted portions have meant a slow roll-out for the efforts they hope to implement through WISE dollars.
Goodson said that leaders originally had hoped for federal approval of spending plans for the federal Community Development Block Grant dollars by April 1, but fielded some questions from the federal government about the money’s use.
Goodson said there were no major hang-ups in the process, particularly as programs were geared toward benefitting low- to moderate-income students.
The uncertainty of the WISE Fund’s future and the CDBG restrictions meant some of the money had to be re-directed toward more general offerings, such as scholarships and internships. Colleges also planned to use the money for facilities upgrades.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s executive budget recommendation for the coming year includes about $30 million to continue the WISE Fund efforts, though higher education leaders have been bracing for deep cuts to funding. Jindal had been a key supporter of the fund’s creation last year.
Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System, said that even if the funding goes away in the coming year, she has seen value in higher education leaders coming together with workforce leaders to address the state’s needs.
Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo agreed.
“This group has a value that goes beyond money,” he said.