Already near the bottom when it comes to adults earning college degrees, Louisiana will fall further behind if it fails to shift its priorities and restore financial support for higher education, a panel of college leaders said Thursday.

At the same time, the state, particularly Baton Rouge, is well-suited to spur future economic growth if it can substantially increase the number of students who not only make it to college but go on to complete two- and four-year degrees, the leaders said.

“I always say, ‘If you’re happy at the bottom, then keep on doing what you’re doing,’ ” said Dennis Michaelis, interim chancellor for Baton Rouge Community College.

LSU Chancellor and President F. King Alexander noted that higher education in this state has sustained some of the steepest cuts in the nation in per capita funding during the past several years, yet Louisiana spends among the most per capita in the country on its prisons.

“We need to re-evaluate our priorities,” King said. “I don’t want to be the first generation to leave the next generation with poorer education and economic development.”

“We should reframe the debate about higher education from it being a cost center to an investment,” said Ray Belton, chancellor and president of Southern University.

Speaking before about 70 people at Juban’s Restaurant in Baton Rouge, the trio was nevertheless bullish on the possibilities if the state increases higher education funding. They focused in particular on current and future partnerships with public school districts such as East Baton Rouge Parish, the second-largest in Louisiana.

“I think higher education collaborating with secondary education is the answer to economic development in Louisiana,” Belton said.

The leaders of Baton Rouge’s three most prominent colleges were part of a luncheon panel organized by the nonprofit group Volunteers in Public Schools. Belton and Michaelis took over their respective institutions this summer. Alexander took over LSU in 2013 and recently had his contract extended through 2020.

Michaelis said he’s been talking with East Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Warren Drake about joining forces in the planned reopening of Istrouma High School, by allowing students from the high school to make use of the vocational courses next door at the community college’s North Acadian Thruway campus, formerly Louisiana Technical College.

Alexander noted two initiatives with the school system: having all sixth-graders visit LSU each year and turning Lee High School into an early college for LSU.

Having sixth-graders visit LSU — it’s scheduled to start Nov. 17 and occur twice more in January — is modeled after a far-reaching partnership with the Long Beach Unified School District that Alexander launched in his previous job as president of Cal State University at Long Beach, California.

Alexander said Louisiana has an opportunity to not only help more children attend college but to help more make the transition from two-year colleges such as Baton Rouge Community College to four-year colleges such as LSU. Currently, only about 6 percent of two-year college students in the state successfully make that leap, he said.

“I could easily see that going from 6 to 20 percent,” he said.

The prospect for even more cuts to higher education, however, might upend all that, something that clearly worries the three leaders. They said the Oct. 24 elections will be key and urged people to scrutinize the candidates closely.

“The person who is our next governor in this state is going to have a tremendous impact on the course of higher education in the state in the next few years,” Michaelis said.

Alexander warned that drastic cuts some have called for, including closing state colleges, would make things worse.

“If we want to go from 49th to 50th and outdo West Virginia, the first thing we can do is to close higher education institutions,” Alexander said. Louisiana recently improved to 48th, overtaking Arkansas, with 29.6 percent of its adults earning two- and four-year degrees.

Southern’s Belton went further: He noted that much of the state is already “undereducated.”

“You could argue that we should have more higher education institutions not less,” he said.