Gov. Bobby Jindal ran for governor four years ago promising to improve higher education by better linking colleges to state workforce development needs, enhancing efficiencies and by adding more individual university accountability.
While observers cite progress on those fronts, Jindal’s first term in office also has seen ongoing state budget cuts to colleges and student tuition hikes as the economy weakened during his term.
Jindal is seeking re-election Oct. 22 and faces nine challengers. Early voting began Oct. 8 and continues through Saturday.
State general fund support for higher education is down more than 21 percent since budget cuts began nearly three years ago, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents. LSU’s tuition and fees are up 35 percent since Jindal took office, although the student costs are still below regional peers.
Tuition hikes and other revenues have offset most of the budget cuts, meaning total financing for higher education is down nearly 3 percent during the same time, the Regents say.
Barry Erwin, president of the nonprofit Council for a Better Louisiana organization, which lobbies on issues such as higher education, said all the gains and losses for colleges must be considered in the context of the budgetary axing. The state has faced steep declines in revenues during the past few years.
“Obviously, the budget cuts have dictated things, but they’ve also dictated we have more of a focus on (college) performance and accountability and flexibility,” Erwin said.
Some of Jindal’s biggest cited accomplishments for higher education include:
• A “Day 1 Guarantee” that community and technical college completers are prepared to work, or they will be retrained for free.
• Constitutionally dedicating — if it is approved by voters Oct. 22 — more funds for the merit-based TOPS scholarships, which is known as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
• The LA GRAD Act and GRAD Act 2.0 legislation that require universities to meet new performance standards in graduation rates, overall graduates and other goals after granting the institutions more tuition authority and other purchasing and construction autonomies to save more funds.
Louisiana’s university graduation rates are the second lowest in the Southern region.
• Continuing to shift overall college enrollment from mostly four-year, university students toward a balance between universities and community and technical colleges, like in most other states.
Toward the end of her term, Gov. Kathleen Blanco funneled more money into colleges and funding reached the Southern regional average for the first time in decades.
But several universities also took that time to try to expand their academic offerings and grow. Erwin said that push is not always a good thing.
“There’s a real tendency for every institution to want to offer everything, and we need to fight against that,” Erwin said.
“I do think some institutions may have to reinvent themselves — maybe smaller, but targeted and focused,” Erwin said.
This is especially true when tougher student admission standards begin next year, he said.
In an interview Tuesday, Jindal also argued that overall state spending was cut by more than higher education. “We have continued to make higher education funding a priority,” he said.
But colleges must continue to make more efficient uses of their dollars, Jindal said. Louisiana spends more per student than many other states, he argued.
Jindal said two key areas that need more attention include strengthening the state’s performance-based higher education formula and undoing some state Constitution dedications that would free up the state budget more.
“For too many years we have rewarded colleges for being the biggest and not the best,” Jindal said.
Jindal has pushed for the constitutional changes in the past, but the legislation has failed. “We do need to change our Constitution so higher education and health care are not the biggest parts unprotected,” Jindal said.
With student tuition costs up, some academic programs axed and faculty pay largely frozen, students and college employees include some of the governor’s biggest critics. They have helped lead rallies critical of Jindal.
Southern University Student Government Association President Demetrius Sumner said colleges are being forced to “turn students out quickly,” at the expense of the holistic education needed to mold students to be ready for the global workforce.
“Higher education has slipped from being a priority to nothing to think about,” Sumner said. “Our higher education institutions have gone from being state-supported to state-assisted.”
LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope said higher education may be maintaining relative stability, “but at the price of a considerable decrease in morale.”
If colleges really were stable, Cope said, “then every university wouldn’t have a budget crisis committee of one form or another. There’s constant suspense. The budgets are either going down or, at least, going down by inflation.”
Cope said he fears colleges are being forced to focus on strict goals at the expense of individual college missions and of overall education cohesion of students from early childhood through college.
Several college president declined to be interviewed for the story, but did respond via email.
LSU System President John Lombardi praised Jindal for at least working to minimize budget cuts. “While we anticipated very severe budget reductions, the governor and his colleagues in the Legislature have limited the damage caused by the decline in state revenue,” Lombardi stated.
Lombardi said more revenues are needed from all possible sources to assist LSU, the LSU Agricultural Center and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, especially in terms of strategic research and development support.
The LSU AgCenter and Southern University, for instance, have considered declaring financial emergencies, called exigency, this year.
CABL’s Erwin also said he hopes Jindal would focus more during a second term on additional strategic investments in university research and development to help spur economic development from grass-roots levels.
In an email response, Southern University System President Ronald Mason Jr. said that — as tuition has risen — the state must now invest more in its need-based GO Grants to assist the lower-income students. “It would foster increased enrollment and educational opportunities for all,” he stated.
Because of the flat funding and more students getting GO Grants, the value of the annual award was decreased from $2,000 to $1,000.
As for higher education governance, Jindal said he will continue to support consolidating into one higher education super board.
Jindal called the Legislature’s rejection of his proposed merger of the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans one of his “biggest regrets.
If the “abysmal graduation rates” do not improve, he said, similar proposals are not being ruled out for next year.