By Robert Mann

Funding for Louisiana’s colleges and universities is lower than at any time since 1961, when John F. Kennedy was president.

According to the monthly research letter Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY (and reported in the Louisiana Budget Project’s Daily Dime), spending in 2013 represents Louisiana’s lowest investment in higher education since 1961 (the numbers compare spending based on $1,000 of personal income for each year).

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Another way of looking at the data is described in a story in Friday’s Baton Rouge Advocate. Reporter Koran Addo writes,

State general fund support for Louisiana’s public colleges and universities has been cut more than 80 percent since the 2007-2008 fiscal year. Louisiana’s youth services have been cut 40 percent, Veteran’s Affairs has been cut 69 percent and the Department of Environmental Quality has had a 96 percent cut.

In Wednesday’s Lake Charles American-Press, columnist Jim Beam offered these observations on the same cuts:

[Gov. Bobby] Jindal for the last five years has submitted budgets that count on revenues that aren’t always dependable. And when the money doesn’t show up, higher education and health care take the hits.

Neither of those areas is protected from budget reductions, so they pay a heavy price when money comes up short. They have faced mid-year budget reductions every year Jindal has been in office. There have even been some year-end cuts.

Take higher education, for example. The state spent $1.4 billion for colleges and universities in fiscal year 2007-08. The budget Jindal proposed for the fiscal year starting July 1 contains $284.5 million for higher education. That is an 80 percent reduction in state funding over those years.

The governor always justifies the cuts by saying colleges and universities have been able to raise tuition to make up the difference. However, that just isn’t the case. While I am writing this, there are higher education officials in the state Capitol who are speaking in favor of bills that would give them authority to seek even higher tuition.

So, how have the deep budget cuts affected Louisiana’s colleges and universities? In testimony Thursday before the Senate Finance Committee, several state higher education leaders laid out the consequences in stark terms.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell described the cuts to LSU and Baton Rouge Community College. He said LSU has seen its state appropriations cuts by 53 percent ($125 million) since 2008. Jindal and the Legislature have slashed BRCC’s budget by 51 percent ($10.7 million) in the same years, he said. As the Advocate reported,

A major research institution like LSU can’t fulfill its mission with that type of year-after-year budget uncertainty, Purcell said. And BRCC can’t adequately fill the area’s workforce needs with that dramatic a decline in state funding, he added.

Louisiana pays its teachers the lowest rates among peer institutions in the South, all while cutting 9 percent of staff in recent years to save money and also grappling with the rising costs of unfunded mandates from the state, he said.

“We realize a highly subsidized higher education system will not be the case in Louisiana, but stable support is critical,” Purcell said. “Louisiana needs higher education to remain viable. This is your time to show your support when higher education is at its most vulnerable.”

LSU’s interim president, William Jenkins, had his turn at the microphone, painting a picture just as dire as Purcell’s, as reported by The Advocate.

Jenkins said LSU suffered the “steady attrition” of high-quality faculty members over the past several years as a result of the budget cuts.

“The strength of a university depends on faculty and support staff,” Jenkins said. “It’s hard to stay competitive when you start losing quality faculty.”

Jenkins said the student-to-faculty ratio at LSU has risen from 18-to-1 to 23-to-1 in recent years.

“I can’t look you in the eye today and tell you we are going to be able to hold our position,” Jenkins said. “It’s just not possible; it’s sad.”

By the way, the headline for this post was inspired by the editorial cartoon below. It’s by the great Fred Mulhearn and is featured in Friday’s Baton Rouge Advocate.