A diverse group of Louisiana leaders on Friday came out against or at least raised questions about President Barack Obama’s plan to provide two years of free community college to most Americans.
The Obama administration formally unveiled details about the America’s College Promise proposal on Friday, touting it as a way to build a better workforce.
But concerns quickly were raised during the Southern University System Board of Supervisors meeting over the impact that could have on historically black colleges and universities, called HBCUs. Some wondered whether free community colleges would siphon off students from already-struggling schools. Louisiana colleges are increasingly relying on students as a revenue stream to fund programs, while state support has been drastically pared back.
“I think that kills HBCUs,” Southern board member Tony Clayton said of Obama’s plan during the meeting Friday. “We have to send a message to (Obama) that he’s wrong on this.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also came out against the plan, arguing that states are better suited for creating such proposals.
“President Obama has increased our national debt by $7.5 trillion dollars and created a new entitlement program at a time when our current entitlement programs are going bankrupt,” Jindal said in a statement to The Advocate. “So of course, now he is planning to offer two years of taxpayer-paid college. Why stop there? Why not have the government buy a car and a house for everyone? We believe states are better positioned than the federal government to handle initiatives like these.”
Under Obama’s proposals, the federal government will cover 75 percent of the program’s cost — an estimated $60 billion in 10 years — while states pick up the rest of the tab. It’s not yet clear where that money would come from, and the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress would have to sign off on the plan.
State Sen. Robert Adley, a Benton Republican who has been an advocate for community colleges in the state Legislature, said he had not had time to go over the specific details of Obama’s proposal on Friday.
“At this point, I don’t know what to say about it,” Adley said, adding that he’d reserve judgment until seeing the specifics.
Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said he also needs to see more information both about the costs and what exactly is being proposed.
“There’s still a lot of detail to be worked through,” he said.
But Sullivan said he felt the proposal was significant in drawing attention to the opportunities offered by community colleges and their place in addressing workforce demands.
“It’s important that we pause for a second and recognize that this is an acknowledgement of the important work that goes on in two-year colleges,” he said.
He said he thinks efforts to get more people educated can draw bipartisan support.
“Providing educational opportunities to accomplish the American dream is, I think, a valuable opportunity for Democrats and Republicans.”
Here in Louisiana, the state operates the Taylor Opportunity Program for students, or TOPS, which covers in-state tuition costs for students who meet certain criteria in high school, and other tuition assistance programs.
The state Legislature last session created the $40 million Workforce Innovation for a Stronger Economy, or WISE, Fund to address the state’s workforce demands. Nearly a third of the money is going to the community college system this year.
Sullivan said he believes it has served as a good model for being more creative in addressing workforce needs.
“Our economy is changing dramatically,” he said.
Even with support for the general goals of Obama’s proposal, it’s unclear how much its implementation would require from the already-thinning state budget.
Leaders are bracing for millions of dollars in additional cuts to funding for colleges and universities next year. Similar to what Obama is proposing for the community college plan, state leaders have identified the state/federal match framework for the federal Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid as a reason to not expand the health care program for the poor here.
Adley said there’s no doubt that higher education is vulnerable under the current budget framework.
“In this state, we have dedicated away the ability to manage our money,” Adley said. “You can’t take a $25 billion budget and dedicate it away. (Cuts are) all coming from one place because you’ve protected everyone else.”
The budget was another issue that the Southern board discussed at length on Friday.
“We’re in trouble — serious trouble,” Clayton said of the $15 million budget hole the system faces.
At its meeting in February, the board is expected to discuss merging its system president and Baton Rouge chancellor positions — an effort to reduce some of the system’s overhead and streamline leadership.
System President Ronald Mason Jr.’s contract will expire at the end of June, and three other chancellor positions need to be filled.
The board next month could restart its presidential search that was abruptly ended in November.
Five new members joined the board Friday, following appointments from Jindal.
The new appointees are Curman Gaines, of Alexandria; Donald Ray Henry, of Donaldsonville; Richard Hilliard, of Shreveport; Pat Magee, of Lafayette; and Dr. Rani Whitfield, of Baton Rouge.