Higher ed officials requesting almost $123 million in additional funding | Louisiana

Higher education officials are asking for $122.6 million in new funding over last year, including money for faculty raises, student scholarships and financial aid for older adults returning to school.

As with most other groups that will testify during this year’s legislative session, the wish list for colleges and universities will not be fully funded. Officials addressing the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday stressed what they consider the low rate of current spending and the high rate of return of investing in higher education.

State spending on higher education currently is a little more than $1 billion. Louisiana is well under the national and regional averages for per-pupil spending on higher education.

“We’re not here to say: Just give us more money,” said Kim Hunter Reed, the state’s commissioner of higher education.

The Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s higher education systems, has set a goal to double the number of Louisiana residents with a degree or credential beyond a high school diploma. Reaching such an ambitious goal requires more investment over time, officials said.

About 23 percent of Louisiana working-age residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, said Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana system, while the national average is 32 percent.

“We are so far behind when it comes to having a competitive, educated populace,” he said. “We’re going to be non-competitive.”

UL System alumni contribute $8.8 billion to Louisiana’s GDP, Henderson said. Louisiana taxpayers receive a 12.5 percent annual rate of return on their investment, he added.

F. King Alexander, president of the LSU system, said his university still raised fees even though its state allocation wasn’t cut last year. He said his peer systems received an average boost of 3.8 percent, which allows them to cover growing mandated costs like pensions and health insurance and give faculty raises. To not lose ground he had to raise fees, he said.

LSU needs more revenue just to hang on to its faculty, Alexander said. Almost across the board, Louisiana public universities pay faculty less than their peers, according to information presented Wednesday.

Some of the requested increases, such as $9.3 million to ensure full funding for the TOPS scholarship program, are funded in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget proposal and in the corresponding House Bill 103, but not in House Bill 105, the House Republicans’ proposal.

HB 105 was based on the last official revenue projection from June. The Revenue Estimating Conference on Wednesday recognized an additional $119 million in money available to spend next fiscal year, which would allow for more spending in HB 105 but will fall about $20 million short from what Edwards had hoped to spend. The REC also recognized an additional $110 million for the current fiscal year.

“We’ll have more than enough time to work with members to see what their priorities are,” said Rep. Cameron Henry, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, during a break in Wednesday’s meetings.

Some of those priorities were in evidence Wednesday. Rep. Jack McFarland, a Jonesboro Republican, asked about two technical and community colleges and the UL-Monroe pharmacy program, the only such program at a state public university, which are in danger of losing accreditation. Officials are requesting $5 million to address those issues.

State Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, urged higher ed officials to focus on “strategic” investments in high-demand careers such as nursing. Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, took that request a step further, asking officials to come up with a legislative package to address the nursing shortage.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, called for greater focus on community and technical colleges, noting that most jobs expected to be created in Louisiana require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree.

“This is where the shortage is, in technical workers,” she said.

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