A moment of truth for higher education in Louisiana

We’ve written time and again on the persistent funding crisis for higher education in Louisiana. Higher education and healthcare in Louisiana have become the emergency funds for budget shortfalls over the course of the past few years, but the state passed two constitutional amendments to protect Medicaid funds on November 4, 2014 that further jeopardized higher education funding.  Prioritizing Medicaid funding is a no-brainer, but the bizarre constitutional amendment process used in our state to secure funding is a tremendous problem.  Every time we pass an amendment that protects funding for a particular program or area, it places higher education funding in more peril.  Now that a substantial portion of healthcare funding has been secured through the constitution, higher education is left standing as the last major source of “flexible” funding.  This is a process that feels a lot like Peter stealing from Paul to pay Mary, and Paul is in pretty bad shape financially at this point.  Over the past six years, state funding for higher education has dropped 43%.

But we’ve recently entered a wholly unprecedented age of proposed cuts to our colleges and universities.

The Revenue Estimating Committee has announced a budget shortfall next year of $1.6 billion, an amount that demonstrates the financial hit to our state from low oil prices as well as the Governor’s own fiscal irresponsibility. A prime example of such fiscal irresponsibility is the film tax credit program. The Governor gives millions of dollars in tax credits away to the film industry each year. Our state literally pays a percentage of Matthew McConaughey’s salary every time he makes a movie or TV series here. And, for what? As Gordon Russell pointed out in his piece on the film tax credits for The Advocate, we strip money from higher education and healthcare to throw money away that we will never come close to getting back. I love Matthew McConaughey.  He’s a great actor. I do not love that our tax dollars, my tax dollars, your tax dollars, contribute to the millions of dollars he earns on a film at the expense of stripping millions of dollars away from higher education in Louisiana.  How does that make any sense?  Because, at the end of the day, Matthew McConaughey is going to be just fine.  Can we say the same about Louisiana higher education?

Today, it seems the answer is a resounding “no.” Our Governor has such an extreme disregard for his own people that thousands may soon lose their access to higher education. Many in Baton Rouge just lost their access to the emergency room when it was announced that Baton Rouge General would be shutting its ER. Why did the hospital have to shut its ER? Because too many people without insurance were utilizing it. People who would have health insurance if the Governor had expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Now, many universities may be following suit by shutting their doors because it is fiscally impossible to keep them open. That’s because the Governor has told our higher education institutions to prepare for a 40% – or $400-million – cut in state funding.

Here’s what could happen if this funding cut goes through:

  • 15 universities could close, including three University of Louisiana campuses
  • If the 15 public campuses do not close their doors, the proposed budget cuts may still cause them to lose their accreditation, thus causing students to lose access to financial aid
  • LSU could lose 3,000 course offerings and between 200 and 300 faculty positions (including 125 new faculty spots that LSU desperately needs to fill)
  • Public higher education institutions could begin privatizing services historically provided by public sector employees

This is the moment of truth for Louisiana higher education institutions, which have already been squeezed to the point of absurdity over the past six years. Students, faculty, and staff are being punished for our Governor’s continuous mismanagement of our state. As a doctoral candidate at LSU, I’ll be honest in saying that this situation has me gravely concerned and may cause me to speed up my timeline for graduation. I have personally felt the impact of the budget cuts to higher education in this state over my three years of being a student here. Higher education can no longer be the whipping boy of our state’s financial crises. We have been bled dry.

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