By Robert Mann
In Thibodaux, some residents call Nicholls State University “Harvard on the Bayou.” Nicholls is a fine school, but it’s not in Harvard’s (Ivy) league, except in one respect: both are private institutions.
Harvard has been private for centuries. Nicholls, however, became “private” in recent years as the Legislature — after more than a dozen deep budget cuts — set it adrift.
And it’s not only Nicholls. Four other Louisiana universities — Grambling State, Louisiana Tech, McNeese State and Southeastern Louisiana University (SLU) — are “private,” too. In other words, each institution pays the state more in mandated costs — the institution’s contributions to retirement, insurance, unemployment benefits, etc. — than it receives in state appropriations.
Nicholls and the other institutions can eliminate programs and lay off employees. They cannot refuse to pay mandated costs.
On average, 74 cents of each dollar the state sends to Louisiana’s universities is sent back to Baton Rouge. Put another way, the state’s pitiful contribution to most universities barely covers their insurance and retirement payments.
Combine those increasing costs with the collapse of state appropriations and you have a situation in which every state college and university now relies on tuition and fees for the overwhelming majority of its funding.
Louisiana has given up supporting its universities in any meaningful way. We no longer regard educating youth as vital to our state’s future. What little we spend on higher education is seen as an expense, not an investment. We view schools as a burden, not pillars of prosperity.
Note how some state officials describe TOPS, Louisiana’s tuition assistance program. Listen to them talk about it, and you would think the program is devouring the state’s budget. You might never guess this voracious beast — one the Legislature couldn’t “fully” support a year ago — represents only about 3 percent of the state’s general fund.
It’s no wonder, then, Louisiana ranks 48th among the states in educational attainment. In other words, only Mississippi and West Virginia have a smaller percentage of residents with college degrees. This pathetic ranking is no accident. We’ve defunded our universities more and raised tuition and fees more than any other state.
Louisiana has not only abandoned its universities; it’s abandoned many young people. It’s now impossible for many high school graduates from low-income families to attend college. And while lawmakers struggle to fund TOPS — which aids only about a fourth of the state’s college students — they’ve done little for Go Grants, an underfunded program for students from low-income families. Those grants could make a profound difference in the lives of young people who struggle to afford college.
Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.