Tuesday, 21 September 2010 19:16
Louisiana College Experience Taking Turn for Worse Due To Budget
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Despite the looming financial crisis facing higher education in Louisiana, the school year begins with booming university enrollments, pushed by record-sized freshman classes. The surge of new students, with their energy, optimism and tuition dollars, should mark the best of times on college campuses. And well these may be, compared to what's ahead next year, when higher ed, with the rest of state government, goes off the budgetary "cliff."


The best this year's big freshman class can offer is reprieves to some faculty members--236 at LSU alone--whose layoff notices effective in January were extended to June to cover the student load.
College leaders, under orders from the state Division of Administration, are submitting budget "exercises" to outline how their schools would handle losing one-third of state funding next year, a possible $437 million reduction on top of $270 million that was cut over the last two years.

LSU's doomsday exercise includes almost 700 layoffs and 8,000 fewer students to cover $62 million in projected cuts system-wide. The other college systems are due to release their reduction reports soon, which should induce further dread.

The increased stress level at the top was a contributing factor, though probably not direct reason why LSU President John Lombardi fired University of New Orleans Chancellor Tim Ryan last week. For months, Ryan's days were said to be numbered, according to the rumor mill at the state Capitol. The two frequently clashed, which is not unusual or beneficial for those dealing with the blunt, authoritarian Lombardi, who has said it is not his job to get people to agree with him.

Also, Ryan had undercut his own support on campus and among alumni by his decision, of the head more than the heart, to take down the athletic program from Division I to Division III.
The fiscal problems, though, helped to bring Ryan's situation to a head. In a letter to the president, the chancellor offered to step aside if the LSU system did not provide more support to UNO. He seemed surprised when Lombardi immediately took him up on it.

A bad situation gets worse for the New Orleans school, which is still struggling with lower enrollment since Hurricane Katrina. Ryan's departure, with seven years experience dealing with financial challenges, puts UNO at a further disadvantage in the coming funding competition at the Legislature next year.

In projecting massive layoffs and forced enrollment decline, Lombardi could be taking the Chicken Little approach, in hopes of inciting LSU alumni and supporters to press state leaders to find more money. He might be overstating the case, but recent experience shows that austerity budgets have been followed by mid-year cuts.

Yet, no matter how scary a picture is painted, it likely won't make legislators overcome their fear of raising taxes, which the governor has promised to veto if they do. There is some support in the state Senate to raise revenue by suspending some tax exemptions, which would still require two-thirds votes of both houses but which the governor could not veto. But opposition to such a move remains strong in the House, where suspending exemptions, even temporarily, is called raising taxes.

Besides, lawmakers say they last year gave the college boards the flexibility to raise tuition 10 per cent per year for the next six years, which feels like a tax increase for parents paying the way or students with college loans. College administrators argue that the tuition hikes are mostly eaten up by increases in insurance, retirement and other rising costs.

Perhaps the biggest problem to overcome for college officials asking for money at the Capitol is their own salary packages, which have escalated in recent years compared to that of other public employees, such as legislators.

The budget constriction in higher ed is made all the more painful by how quickly it came about. When today's juniors and seniors started out a few years ago, state funding for colleges reached peak levels and learning opportunities expanded. Now many of those students worry about being able to get into crowded classes they need for graduation. It could be worse for today's freshmen, who have to wonder how much of a college experience will be left for them.

by John Maginnis of Lapolitics.com

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