Higher education leaders to Legislature: give us funding or give us tuition autonomy _lowres

File photo of former LSU President F. King Alexander with Gov. John Bel Edwards. 

How great it was to see LSU competing for the national football championship last night, the fourth time in this decade the Tigers have appeared in the big game in New Orleans.

Louisiana loves football, and it helps unite us, provides educational opportunities, and teaches our young people to function as teammates and colleagues.

But there is much more to LSU than Saturdays at Tiger Stadium, and Louisiana needs to support LSU in the classroom with the same vigor as it supports our athletes on the field.

So it’s disappointing to see that Clemson, and other schools that compete with LSU, are ahead of us when it comes to state support and, consequently, academic success.

Direct state support for higher education in Louisiana dropped by nearly half between 2008 and 2018, from $1.5 billion to $831 million. There were 16 budget cuts over a decade.

LSU’s president, F. King Alexander, was a regular fixture at the State Capitol during legislative sessions, pleading for higher education amid a series of budget crises. He just quit to head up Oregon State University, in a state that treats its colleges and universities better.

Sorting through budget cuts hasn’t been a problem for Jim Clements, president of Clemson for the past seven years. Over the past five years, he says, South Carolina’s state support for higher education climbed by 29%.

Louisiana spends $13,091 per student at four-year schools, compared with $20,085 in South Carolina, according to data compiled by the state Board of Regents.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Clemson bests LSU in academic rankings. U.S. News ranks Clemson No. 70 and LSU No. 153, and The Wall Street Journal puts Clemson at No. 188 and LSU at No. 295.

The good news is that the situation is improving. The cutting stopped in 2018, and Louisiana is now enjoying a budget surplus.

The state got there by raising sales taxes, and we would have been better off if we had trimmed back tax breaks and cut off giveaway programs that don’t work.

But the surplus should give Louisiana an opportunity to reinvest in higher education, and our young people deserve the best we can give them.

The communities that are booming, from Boston to Austin, are doing it based on great universities.

If Louisiana wants to compete for a national championship in prosperity, not just football, we need to support our schools.

Hollering for a football team is good fun. Building lasting opportunity is hard work.

Lanny Keller: A tale of two economic worlds, North Carolina and Louisiana