Legislators from across the state met with Louisiana University System and Northwestern State University representatives and Natchitoches officials at a Legislative Priority meeting held March 9 at NSU.
ULS President Dr. Jim Henderson called it a conversational meeting to discuss the issues the state and higher education face when it comes to the unlimited demands placed on extraordinarily limited resources.
“We’re not here to ask you for money today,” Henderson joked. “That’s not what today is about. Today is about setting priorities.”
Louisiana is entering an age where employers are requesting higher skill sets than ever before. “What a scary time this is for us,” said Henderson. “Because it’s change. But that’s good in a lot of ways.”
ULS is constantly looking at its operations. According to Henderson, 350 outdated programs were eliminated and 15 percent of salaries across the system were eliminated, totaling over $70 million.
“We are entering a season where continued disinvestment in education makes us noncompetitive,” he said. He said this relates to high amounts of deferred maintenance and faculty salaries.
ULS Board Chair Alejandro Torres said being noncompetitive is creating a “brain drain” for higher education when it becomes more financially viable for students to attend out of state colleges than the ones closest to them.
With 68 percent of all students in Louisiana attend a ULS college, Senator Gerald Long said Governor John Bel Edwards is committed to fixing the problem. Long will meet with Edwards March 13 to discuss budget issues, keeping in mind their goal of bringing back funding for higher education up to the 50 percent level as soon as possible.
Long said the key word here is patience. “This will be a slow process,” he said.
It’s a revenue stream issue. The state gives away too much money in exemptions, approximately $9 billion a year in the form of rebates and industrial credits. The legislature is challenged with dealing with these issues because a balance must be found.
Alan Seabaugh, a state representative from Shreveport, said higher education lost $1 billion in state funding to hospitals last year.
State Representative Terry Brown said TOPS recipients need to be held accountable for the money they receive if they don’t finish their degrees.
State Representative Kenny Cox said scholarships need to be offered based on occupation forecasting, however Henderson said the top 10 jobs in demand for 2025 don’t even exist today. There is a need to stay competitive to keep the best and brightest in-state so the colleges and universities can prepare them for a future where careers are constantly changing.