Louisiana continues to underinvest in human capital

By Steve Spires

A new report provides a fresh layer of evidence that Louisiana’s colleges and universities have been uniquely hard hit by budget cuts in the wake of the Great Recession.

The report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Louisiana has slashed state support for higher education more than almost any other state since 2008. Even more troubling, while most states are starting to reinvest resources in higher education, Louisiana is one of only a handful of states that continue to make cuts — putting us further behind our neighbors in the race to build a 21st century workforce.

Between 2008 and 2014, Louisiana cut state support per student by 43 percent (adjusted for inflation). While all but a few states cut funding for higher education during the recession and its aftermath, only Arizona cut more than Louisiana on a percentage basis. On a dollar basis, Louisiana cut state support by $5,000 per student, more than any other state.

Louisiana has cut more per student than any other state.

The trend doesn’t seem to be improving. Louisiana was one of only eight states that cut per-student funding for higher education last year — a decrease of $255, or almost 4 percent — even as a handful of states increased funding by double digits. And it isn’t just states like Massachusetts and California that are reinvesting in education. Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia are also taking steps in the right direction, while per-student spending in Louisiana remains 20 percent below the Southern average.

The evidence is clear that cuts to colleges and universities are hurting the quality of higher education in Louisiana. There are 1,001 fewer faculty members across the state than in 2008, a 10 percent decline. When professors leave, they often take valuable research dollars and research assistant positions with them. Louisiana is devoting $100 million less annually to classroom instruction than in 2008 — an 11 percent decrease — and $33 million less to research, a drop of nearly 16 percent. And almost $36 million less is going to maintenance, a 14 percent drop, even as the backlog of projects grows and some university buildings are in terrible disrepair.

But even as students are getting less, they are being asked to pay more. Average tuition is up 52 percent at Louisiana’s 4-year universities since 2008, the 8th highest percentage increase in the nation. For students and families, that means a jump of $2,242 a year. And last year, Louisiana raised tuition $585 or almost 10 percent — more than any other state in the country.

Louisiana has raised tuition more than any other state.

Tuition in Louisiana is still below the national and Southern averages. But steep year-over-year tuition increases can have a negative effect on graduation rates for lower-income students at a time when funding for Louisiana’s need-based Go Grant awards has remained flat. Students are far more likely to graduate, for example, when they have at least 60 percent of their financial needs met with aid.

What makes the data so concerning is that there is a strong relationship between the share of a state’s workforce with a bachelor’s degree and median wages — far stronger than any correlation between wages and tax rates or abstract “business climate” rankings. Louisiana has one of the lowest levels of college attainment in the nation, and this is a major reason we are the third-poorest state. Until policymakers get serious about investing in our human capital, the state is likely to continue to fall behind in the 21st century global economy.

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