Special report: Governor pledges to ease burden on students, but no clear path to that goal _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Louisiana Gov-Elect John Bel Edwards gives the commencement address at the Fall Commencement of Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge on Dec. 11, 2015.

In his successful run for governor, John Bel Edwards promised to reverse at least some of the damage done to higher education in Louisiana over the past eight years.

Bobby Jindal cut direct state aid to universities by 53 percent, and the schools dramatically increased tuition and fees to fill most of the gap. For the 25 percent or so who qualify, the state’s merit-based scholarships have helped blunt the impact of those hikes, but the awards do less for black people and the poor than for their more well-off peers.

Edwards has pledged to ease the burden on students, but there will be no easy way to accomplish that goal. It will mean choosing from an array of unpopular options: raising taxes, doling out fewer merit-based scholarships, closing campuses or raiding other areas of the budget that already have been plundered.

Any of those options likely will meet stubborn resistance — from tax-averse lawmakers to a middle class that has increasingly come to rely on the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students to get their kids through college.

Just breaking even on higher education funding may be a tall order for the new governor, who needs to come up with at least another $750 million just to keep state government running through June 30, the end of the fiscal year. A $1.9 billion gap between predicted revenues and expenses looms for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

In short, the budget crisis probably will prevent ambitious changes to higher education in the near future.

“Right now in higher ed, it’s all about the budget,” said state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, the Jennings Republican who leads the Senate Education Committee, which would have to pass any reform legislation. “If the governor can get us through July 1 and then $1.9 billion after that, then we can talk about all these other issues.”

Barry Erwin, the head of the Council for A Better Louisiana, agreed with that synopsis.

“My sense … is that you’re not going to see a whole lot in the way of consolidations, mergers, anything like that, proposed by this administration,” said Erwin, who served on Edwards’ transition committee studying higher education policy and has served on numerous blue-ribbon higher education panels over the years.

The short run

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be at least a few changes right out of the gate — especially ones that could save money.

Edwards’ transition committee, for instance, issued a written report Jan. 22 saying the bar for receiving a TOPS scholarship should be raised, a change that would be controversial but also would save the state money. How much money would depend on how high the bar was raised, a key point the committee did not take a position on.

A separate question is whether Edwards, if he chooses to push the agenda, will be able to get the Legislature to go along.

His transition team also endorsed a measure to “decouple” TOPS awards from tuition, a plan that has much broader backing — and that passed the Legislature last year before being vetoed by Jindal.

If changes to TOPS produce savings, as both of those proposals could, some of the money could be plowed into scholarship programs aimed at the poor — something Edwards’ committee also endorsed.

The committee’s report opined that Louisiana’s investment in merit-based aid — chiefly through TOPS — is “grossly disproportionate” to the state’s investment in need-based aid, which primarily comes through the Go Grant program.

The average Southern state puts about 40 percent of its scholarship money into need-based programs. Louisiana, by comparison, spends roughly $10 on TOPS for every $1 it spends on Go Grants. The committee recommended rebalancing that ratio by “substantially increasing funding” for Go Grants.

More broadly, Edwards has said he wants to restore some of the money the state formerly pumped into direct aid to universities, before the cuts of the Jindal years.

He has said he eventually wants tuition to account for half the average cost of college and have state taxpayers pick up the rest. Students are now paying about 70 percent of the cost, with the state picking up the rest — essentially the reverse of the ratio when Jindal took office.

To achieve his desired 50-50 ratio, Edwards would need several hundred million dollars in new revenue.

His transition team also has recommended that the state commit to a minimum level of funding for universities and promise never to go below it — ending the recent practice of raiding higher education’s appropriations to balance the budget.

Down the road

Along with boosting state aid, Edwards also may try to undo some of the philosophical changes in higher education that Jindal shepherded through.

For instance, the 2010 GRAD Act — perhaps the Jindal administration’s signature piece of higher education legislation — has been targeted for elimination.

That law was the primary vehicle that allowed Louisiana’s tuition — historically low and still lower than most states — to rise so steeply. Schools that met performance benchmarks were given the authority to raise tuition by 10 percent every year.

Joseph Rallo, the state’s commissioner of higher education, said the GRAD Act — which was supported by most university administrators — has had unforeseen effects.

“It became punitive, and that was never the intent,” Rallo said.

The idea was that schools that improved student retention and graduation rates would get more autonomy and more money. But the Jindal administration quickly started calculating how much a university could raise its tuition and simply removed that amount from the state appropriation, negating the rewards promised by the new law.

“You can’t be held accountable if someone else can tell you what you can or cannot charge,” said Rudy Gomez, of Blueprint Louisiana, a group of business leaders that has submitted its own higher education agenda. “Where’s the incentive in that? Give them autonomy over expenses and revenues. If they can operate for less, then let them keep the money. It’s just a basic economic idea, and I think it works.”

But other Jindal reforms likely will endure. For instance, college and university administrators have been placing a far greater emphasis on employment than erudition, and that probably won’t change.

Alexandria lumberman Roy O. Martin III, a Jindal appointee to the Board of Regents, certainly hopes it doesn’t.

Estimates are that Louisiana has 75,000 jobs that need to be filled now and more than 32,000 additional jobs to fill by the end of this year.

The trick is trying to get students in the disciplines that have employment opportunities.

“You don’t need 200 archaeology graduates a year. You need 600 engineers,” Martin said. “I’m not saying eliminate the arts or humanities, but make sure students know about job availability.”

Martin said college officials need to start visiting high schools to talk about the work available and the training necessary to get those jobs. Counseling throughout college should focus on employment prospects, he said.

“The future of higher education is that: looking at the workforce and adjusting the resources to fit the workforce demands as they change. We are trying to do that,” Martin said. “We’re making good progress on that at most schools. I can’t blanketly say we’re succeeding at all institutions. Some have not gotten to that track yet.”

More streamlining?

Over the past couple of years, the Board of Regents also has addressed one of the most frequent criticisms: that too many Louisiana colleges offer duplicative courses, sometimes in arcane subjects that almost nobody takes. The board has eliminated 410 of those classes.

Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, the former chairman of the Senate Education Committee, believes that more-ambitious reforms also should be contemplated.

“There are a whole bunch of very serious questions that relate directly to the budget shortfall,” Appel said. “This opens the door of opportunity for us to have some serious discussions about the nature and extent of higher ed and how we measure its results and how we reward or penalize it if it doesn’t perform.”

Rallo said the regents are moving forward with new, more focused accountability measures that should be finalized by March. Those include retention and graduation rates, as well as a focus on high-demand, high-wage fields.

The regents also are looking to reward schools where students take higher course loads.

“And (schools) will recognize increased money or they will not recognize increased money depending on their performance,” Rallo said.

He added: “I do not think that the idea of mergers or closures is as important as trying to minimize duplication and trying to maximize access.”

Republican Rep. Chris Broadwater, who can throw a ball from his Hammond backyard into the Southeastern Louisiana University baseball field, said he’s happy for the short-term fixes. But the regents’ failure to provide any vision for what higher education will look like over the next decade or two makes it difficult for die-hard supporters in the Legislature to protect universities’ funding, he said.

“Make the argument and tell us how you plan to get there: What is it going to cost, and show us the research that this, whatever it is, is the best plan,” Broadwater said.

LSU President F. King Alexander said what Louisiana is experiencing is similar to other states’ budget problems.

Ten years from now, he said, many states will be out of the business of funding public higher education altogether and instead will make their institutions cover their costs entirely through tuition and fees.

What that means, Alexander said, is that only students from wealthier families will be able to access higher education. He hopes Louisiana won’t be in that number.

“In Louisiana, it’s really up to the people,” Alexander said.

“The bottom line is about our societal choices: Are we going to have an affordable public higher education system that can compete with other states?” he said. “Right now, we are in a very tenuous position.”

Elizabeth Crisp, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog/.