About 800 college students from across the state served lunch to Louisiana legislators Wednesday and talked about the need to fully fund higher education.
“We think they (legislators) need to see these bright, articulate Louisiana leaders who are being educated in Louisiana universities,” said Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System. “Our message is we need to stabilize higher education funding and make it more predictable.”
The lawmakers are in the midst of vetting a state spending plan that currently includes $2.27 billion for higher education for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That’s down from $2.29 billion from the current fiscal year.
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But that’s total dollars, the amount state government has appropriated to the colleges universities has dropped from $1.5 billion in 2008 to $825 million proposed for next year.
Though total budgets have hovered around the $2 billion level for more than a decade, students and their families are now paying the portion that taxpayers once contributed.
The nine universities of the UL System have about 90,000 students and an operating budget of about $784 million, only 30 percent of which comes from state appropriations. University of Louisiana at Lafayette President E. Joseph Savoie said the real issue is stability. A series of budgets over the past nine years has worried faculty and students alike.
“How can I keep faculty when they’re offered more pay, better labs and a more stable environment,” Savoie said. “Higher education needs stability. These are long-term enterprises that need to make decisions projected into the future.”
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Student body leaders from the UL System later shared their concerns with the House Appropriations Committee during a hearing on the budget. But the reception wasn’t warm.
Erin Fernandez, student body president at Southeastern, said students are increasingly picking up a bigger piece of the tab for funding universities, while schools continue to face cuts.
"I just don't see how we will be able to sustain much longer," she said.
"It sometimes seems like people are more worried about the next time LSU will beat Alabama," said John B. Pearce, student body president at Northwestern State.
Their comments didn't sit well with at least one legislator, though.
Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, quizzed them about whether they themselves are active voters and whether they encourage other students to be active voters. He said he felt that the students were "fussing" at the lawmakers over the budget, which he accused college students of also carrying out via Facebook and private text messages.
"I just couldn't resist as I took that lashing that maybe we needed to turn it around a little bit," Bagley said. "When you fuss at me about something, you need to be ready to receive."
Elizabeth Crisp of The Advocate Capitol news bureau contributed to this report