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Hoping for the Best While Planning for the Worst: Public Higher Ed in Louisiana

The EvoLLLution | Hoping for the Best While Planning for the Worst: Public Higher Ed in Louisiana
Facing the possibility of funding cuts in the hundreds of millions of dollars for next academic year, system and institution leaders across the state are hoping for the best but planning for the worst.

Cuts to state funding for higher education are nothing new, but for most states, appropriations are back on the rise. In Louisiana, the state government is considering unprecedented cuts to public higher education that could leave four systems sharing $123.6 million between them. Though system and institutional leaders are working hard to lobby state legislators and turn the tide after eight years of cuts to public higher education, they are also creating plans to cope with the worst-case scenario and, for some institutions in Louisiana, that means exigency. In this interview, Sandra Woodley discusses the impact the proposed cuts would have on higher education and the economy in Louisiana and shares her thoughts on how public institutions might cope with the dreaded worst-case scenario.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How will the proposed cuts to Louisiana’s public higher education funding model impact the universities across the University of Louisiana System (ULS)?

Sandra Woodley (SW): It will depend on the magnitude of the cuts and it will vary depending on the institution. We have several institutions that have very thin margins after eight years of cuts that would find it very difficult to manage even a small cut in appropriations. It will just depend.

Evo: What kinds of management changes can institutions make to help offset some of the looming budget cuts?

SW: Any administrative changes would be a continuation of what all institutions have been doing in Louisiana. We’re thousands of positions down, we’ve closed hundreds of programs and immersed other programs. We’ve been working very hard at the ULS to become more targeted, more focused and more efficient. If there are severe cuts that do roll in, then additional changes will have to be made.

The biggest regret that we’ll have is that most of the efficiencies are really gone. Any cuts from this point forward will really affect our ability to take students into our campuses and to educate them. It will affect our ability to produce graduates for the workforce. There will be less education in Louisiana if these cuts do happen.

Evo: Would it be possible for institutions across the system to generate additional non-governmental revenue to help maintain their level of operations today?

SW: The two major sources of operating dollars at any public institution are state appropriation and tuition and fees. In Louisiana over the past several years, we’ve totally flipped our source of funds. Now we have 70 percent of our operating dollars coming from the students and only 30 percent coming from the state. The problem with that in Louisiana is we’re a relatively poor state. We’re starting to see enrollment decline and students who are unable to pay these tuition and fee increases.

The other problem we have in Louisiana is we’ve increased tuition 80 percent over the past eight years: 10 percent annually to make up for a hole in the budget elsewhere. Students are paying a lot more than they did, they’re having trouble affording the bill and they’re getting $90 million less in services.

On average, our Pell Grant awards to the students are a little more than $4,000 but our price now is around $7,000. Even with the federal government helping with financial aid, we have a $3,000 gap, on average, for our neediest students—and there are a lot of them.

The biggest concern that we have in Louisiana is not that an institution will have to go into exigency, but that’s only a symptom of the real tragedy in my view. The real tragedy is we’re not going to be able to educate Louisiana. There’s no economic development without higher education because we produce the workforce. That’s what we’re so urgently trying to protect in Louisiana with staving off the budget cuts.

Evo: How likely is it that the ULS will have to claim system-wide exigency in the wake of the budget cuts?

SW: Depending on the severity of the cuts, there are institutions for which this is a real possibility. We’ll have to work through that when the time comes. We’re cautiously optimistic that most of the cuts that have been talked about won’t happen. Each of the leaders at our institutions is working on contingency plans and scenario planning to be able to determine their breaking point.

Policies are in place that will allow the institutions to have the tools that they need and the system is supportive of the institutional presidents to be able to make the hard decisions that will have to happen should anything like the worst-case scenario roll in. However, we’re spending most of our energy on trying to make sure that worst-case scenario doesn’t happen.

Evo: From the system perspective, what can you do to support institutions within the University of Louisiana System that may have to take the exigency pathway?

SW: If an institution has to declare exigency, that doesn’t mean that that institution is bankrupt. It won’t mean that the institution can’t rally and reorganize and make good progress. It is not the opinion of our system that this has to be some sort of destiny for an institution.

Exigency just allows a quicker turnaround on an organization that really might be necessary for some of these institutions to survive and come back stronger at some point.

Evo: Some systems facing budget crises are trying to eliminate repetition in programming between campuses and finding ways to share resources system-wide. How realistic is this type of transformation for the ULS?

SW: Some of this stuff we’ve already been doing, like targeting programs and looking at repetition. For us, the repetition is only bad if there isn’t the demand for the degree. If everybody doubled or even tripled their production of computer science graduates, there still wouldn’t be enough to fill the state’s need. Engineering, nursing and accounting are areas where the demand is so high that everybody could be at full tilt; the repetition is badly needed. In other areas, we have tried to look at ways to be more focused.

The Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy (WISE) proposal put $40 million in targeted money to drive the areas that are in high demand. For us, we used all of our money in computer science, engineering, accounting and nursing. We are becoming more and more targeted.

There are ways we could all save money if we could do things like procurement jointly but you really have to have an investment on the front end to be able to get the resources in place to manage those operations. We are looking at the possibility that there may be an institution or two within our system who has a particular expertise in a particular area who would be willing to sponsor the other systems to try to pool together our resources and be more efficient.

Evo: How do you balance the need for innovation and change against the fear people inside the system may have?

SW: I’m a pragmatist and everyone is working hard to fulfill their mission on a limited amount of resources. We have to be very selective and have very clear priorities that are developed, not from the top or from the system, but from collaborations between and amongst the leadership at the institutions.

We’re constantly reprioritizing what we’re working on in a way that adds value. The last thing I want to do from the system level is add stress. That’s really not the role of a system like ours. We’re trying to add value and making sure that all the institutions are working together to determine what that value should be. It’s stressful to do that at a time like this, but it’s also immensely important.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the work that’s being done at the system level to prepare for what might be a very drastic set of cuts coming down from the legislature?

SW: We’ve worked very hard to pool our resources on the legislative fund. We’ve been working with our friends at the legislature to try to find a remedy that can help everyone. We’ve been working with business and industry leaders to make sure that they understand that this is not a “business and industry versus higher ed” issue. It’s a very delicate political environment that we find ourselves in. Because the number is so big and remedies are narrow, we’re having to work very hard to make sure that we keep our partnerships and alliances together even if we don’t agree on every part of the remedy.

This interview has been edited for length.

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