LSU President F. King Alexander was upbeat with the incoming students he helped move into their dorm rooms Wednesday, but he thinks enrollment at the state’s universities will remain lackluster.
“I expect we’ll be down about 2 percent,” Alexander said. Classes at LSU and most Louisiana campuses begin Monday.
Official numbers won’t be ready for another few weeks, once administrators can see who actually signed up and is attending class. But his guess is about 640 students fewer than the 32,021 students who enrolled last year at LSU Baton Rouge for the fall 2016 semester, according to the Board of Regents, the oversight agency that collects those numbers.
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Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana system, is more sanguine. He estimates the nine regional four-year institutions that he runs will see a slight increase in enrollment.
Statewide, enrollments have slid each year of the past seven for a total of 6.6 percent reduction — from 225,198 in the 2010 fall semester to 211,248 students enrolling this time last year, according to the Board of Regents. It’s not dramatic, but the trend is worrisome.
Alexander cited lots of reasons — the economy, for instance. But he put most of the onus on the lack of stability caused by the state, year after year, reducing its contribution towards paying for the daily operations of the state’s 14 public universities and 15 community colleges. The budget cuts — $731 million or about 45 percent since 2009 — caused changes in the way the universities function and increased costs for students.
“There has been a lot of negative energy around the universities, mostly because of the budget cuts,” Henderson said. “But we’re in a position now to reverse that.”
The Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards approved a state budget that kept higher education funding essentially the same this fiscal year as last, reversing a trend that reduced revenues and forced cuts 16 times over nine years.
“I’m optimistic. We have momentum,” Alexander told incoming honors students and their parents over a lunch of jambalaya and hamburgers. He boasted of hiring 133 new professors who were trained at some of the nation’s and the world’s leading universities.
The state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 also fully funded the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students — but only after a lot of handwringing.
Lawmakers weren’t sure through most of the legislative sessions earlier this year if they could come up with the $290 million needed to cover tuition to in-state public colleges and universities for about 50,000 students meeting modest academic standards. Last year, legislators couldn’t find the dollars, and the result was students had to pay more.
“TOPS wasn’t settled until mid-June. A lot of these decisions (about where to attend college) are being made in April,” Alexander said. “That had an impact.”
Joli Baquet, of Metairie, was one of those parents who closely watched the funding debate earlier this year. The full funding of TOPS was a factor in her son Noah choosing LSU over Ole Miss, where he also was accepted, she said as Alexander carried Noah’s belongings into a dorm room.
Alexander also said more out-of-state students came to Louisiana colleges and universities, even as the state’s total enrollment fell. The Board of Regents reports that students from other states increased from 16,327 in 2010 to 17,359 in 2016.
“(LSU's) out-of-state numbers are looking good, may even be going up,” Alexander said.
Students coming from elsewhere generally don’t receive the discounts in-state students do. Once the state reduced its higher education appropriations, the institutions had to rely more on tuition and fees from the students. For Louisiana residents, the cost is about $11,300 for a schedule of 12 credit hours. For a Texan or other non-Louisiana resident, those charges are about $28,000.
Alexander said it has become fairly standard for public universities around the country to recruit from other states.
“We’re seeing the other states aggressively go after our best and brightest,” said Henderson, whose universities have about 90,000 students. He knows this on a personal level as his mailbox was stuffed over the past couple years with brochures from universities in other states addressed to his son.
Henderson said that despite the offers, his son enrolled at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and moved into a dorm over the weekend.