Even as Gov. John Bel Edwards started his re-election campaign with a boast that state college funding has stabilized after years of harsh budget cuts, he’s willing to add right away that not enough has been done.
With college funding lowest per student in the SEC, the governor asked rhetorically if Louisiana would put up with that kind of ranking in football.
He is right to pose the question, and the good news about higher education funding in the last few years should not obscure the serious cutbacks in direct state aid for colleges and universities during the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“Higher education has been kept whole for two years,” Edwards said during a round of reelection events in January. “Contrast that with the eight years before I became governor, when we cut higher education more than any other state and we raised tuition more than any other state.”
It’s a good point, although there’s some debate whether Arizona just edged us out of the worst spot in those ratings among the states.
But if the governor’s larger point is well-taken, there is another way to look at the past few years of relative stability: “Stable funding is not the same as adequate funding.”
That was the statement of LSU President F. King Alexander at The Advocate’s roundtable of state leaders, also held in January.
His theme was taken up by others. “Developing our talent is huge,” said Darryl Byrd of IberiaBank.
It is huge.
Louisiana’s future remains dependent on a robust educational system that starts at birth and continues through higher education. But all that, including more than college funding, is an expensive proposition for a state government where special interests protect an antiquated tax code and changes backed by Edwards and reform-oriented business groups have been sidelined in the Legislature, again and again.
When it comes to cuts, higher education and health care remain dependent on the political winds, and revenue increases to get Louisiana spending up from the emaciated levels of the Jindal years are often bitterly criticized — and typically no solutions are offered.
In a worldwide competition for talent, Louisiana is ill-equipped to win. As Alexander noted, “there are no borders around a national research university,” and thus LSU is frequently poached for academic talent.
The good news, as Edwards told editors and reporters of The Advocate recently, it is that stable funding is better. “Enrollment increases in all our universities have been pretty strong in this academic year,” Edwards said, providing breathing room for the campuses.
What can’t be avoided is that more dollars from the general fund are going to be hard to come by to build campuses back up.