State funding for Louisiana’s colleges and universities became a unifying force in the most recent legislative session, but behind the scenes, animosity has been simmering over a disparity in the way two-year and four-year institutions are funded.

Leaders on the community college level say the state funds have been distributed to “keep doors open” at four-year colleges, which have seen declining enrollment, at the expense of two-year schools, which have seen explosive growth in fields targeted toward the state’s workforce demands.

“We can’t go forward this way,” said Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Monte Sullivan. “It has to be addressed.”

As the state has cut funding for all of higher education, Louisiana’s community colleges have been dealt an additional $54 million blow since the 2012 fiscal year, according to figures from LCTCS. According to the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Louisiana’s per pupil higher education funding was slashed 43.2 percent from 2008 to 2014.

The Board of Regents has a funding formula for distributing that state money among each of the state’s four systems — LCTCS, Southern University System, LSU System and University of Louisiana System — based mostly on institutional costs and tied partly to outcomes. But the board later agreed to a “stop loss” model that would protect schools as they faced deep cuts to state funding. That stop loss — meant to keep funding as stable as possible — has protected colleges from dropping even further below what they previously received, but it also has meant that funding hasn’t matched shifts in enrollment.

Sullivan said the community college system has gone along with stop loss in good faith, with the expectation that Regents would return to the funding model once the cuts subsided. Higher education has now gone through two legislative sessions without cuts.

The stop loss could go against state law that requires the “equitable allocation of state funds” to public colleges and universities.

“Could you imagine if this was happening on the K-12 level?” Sullivan asked.

Sullivan addressed the issue at a recent Regents meeting, but his presentation generated little discussion.

Also at the meeting for a separate issue before the board were representatives from Southern University System, which would stand to lose money if the stop loss were to go away.

“We can’t be in a perpetual stop loss,” Sullivan pleaded with the board. “We are placing a priority on keeping doors open at institutions, as opposed to serving students.”

No college or university in Louisiana is receiving 100 percent of what they are supposed to get under the state formula, said Barbara Goodson, deputy commissioner for finance and administration for the state higher education board. On average, colleges are getting about 60 percent of the funding they are due.

On one end of that spectrum: Southern University in New Orleans is getting 81.1 percent of its funding. On the other: Bossier Parish Community College is getting about 52.1 percent of its due funding, and that’s only thanks to a shifting of about $6.1 million in an attempt to keep colleges competitive under the stop loss. Without that additional funding boost, BPCC would get only about 36 percent of its due state funding.

“We knew it would be really difficult to have to take money away from some of these institutions that are still not fully funded,” Goodson said. “It was the stop loss that got us here.”

The state would need to spend an additional $400 million on higher education to get all schools up to 100 percent funded, she said.

Regents have expressed some interest in addressing the disparity.

Board member Mark Abraham, of Lake Charles, said the funding gap has a direct impact on economic development in the state.

“It’s really not right,” he said.

Regent Bob Levy, of Dubach, agreed.

“We have some schools that are losing enrollment, and they are being shielded,” he said.

Board Chairman Roy Martin, of Alexandria, also expressed some concern before the regents took no action, aside from adopting a resolution to acknowledge and review the disparity.

“It’s our constitutional duty to appropriate funds in an appropriate manner,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.

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