"We've fixed the flat tires, but now we gotta drive the car. The good news is, we have a road map."

That statement from Louisiana Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Savoie describes, in a nutshell, the current state of Louisiana colleges and universities. As increased student enrollment this fall provides a brighter forecast than that of a few years back, education officials across the state realize that significant progress has been made. Still, much more work remains to bring Louisiana's higher education system up to par.

Colleges and universities cannot do this work alone. The citizens of Louisiana must be aware of -- and involved in -- efforts to better fund and support our institutions of higher learning. It's time for this topic to graduate from general discussion to concerted action.

The timing could not be more critical. The Board of Regents estimates a 2 percent increase in statewide enrollment by 2005, an increase whose costs cannot be covered by the five-year incremental increase in tuition granted by the Legislature in 2001. Additionally, Louisiana continues to fight a troubling phenomenon known as a "brain drain," an exodus of college-educated talent to more lucrative locales.

In an attempt to stem this flow, Gov. Mike Foster recently drafted a letter encouraging all recent college graduates in the state to embark on their professional lives at home. This symbolic gesture coincides with a massive undertaking -- now approaching full swing -- by the state education community to improve all facets of the college and university system, from better student preparation and placement to improved faculty salaries and better facilities and resources.

The ultimate goal is clear and necessary: a well-educated citizenry living and working in Louisiana. What such a sweeping program requires for success is a solid base of participation and funding. The state of Louisiana must make higher education a top priority, and legislators, concerned citizens and education officials must work together to shore up this most important component of the future success of our state.

This is not as insurmountable a task as it might have seemed seven years ago; we already have made significant progress. From 1985 to 1994, the state's higher education system was hit with a total of 13 budget cuts. Forced to reckon with what Savoie describes as "system-wide trauma," the Board of Regents understandably gave top priority to professors and instructional staffs, but many outstanding professors were lost just the same. Even worse, other elements suffered as a result -- library holdings, technology acquisitions, air conditioner repairs and roof repairs, to name but a few.

Some relief came in 1986, when a settlement in a dispute with the federal government over offshore oil and gas revenues resulted in Louisiana picking up $800 million. From this, the Louisiana Educational Quality and Support Fund (also called the "8g" fund) was created. This fund benefits both the Board of Regents and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and lawmakers dedicated it to creating endowed chairs to attract and retain top professors. The matching fund fosters public input via its 60/40 state-to-private-contributions ratio, and in the past 15 years it has succeeded in generating significant private donations to higher education. In 1998 alone, the fund received $12 million from private sources, an amount attributed to greatly increased public involvement.

The problem lies in the state holding up its end. Although required to match that $12 million with $29 million, the state only managed to scrape together $22 million in surplus funds -- an unreliable and unpredictable source. Subsequent disparities in the state's ability to pay have resulted in a $70 million backlog of private donations currently waiting for matching funds. Thus, on the issue of paying for higher education, citizens have stepped up to the plate. Our elected officials must now do their part. It may take creative financing, but it all starts with a steadfast commitment.

All the same, Louisiana has made progress in catching up with other Southern states. Currently, Louisiana's per pupil funding rate for higher education is about 74 percent of those of our Southern peers, a major step up from the 65 percent level of a few years back. Meanwhile, the progress made by some other Southern states with excellent colleges and universities -- namely Florida, Virginia, Texas and North Carolina -- has provided Louisiana with a "road map," Savoie says. "Right now, we're operating with $900 million," he continues. "We need to run with about $1.2 billion to reach the Southern average in funds per student."

It's crunch time. If Louisiana truly wants to stop its "brain drain," we must start by adequately funding our colleges and universities. As is often the case with budget decisions, it's a matter of priorities.