La. Colleges officials describe ‘fragile’ finances

BATON ROUGE – Louisiana’s public colleges are slated to receive $91 million more in state funding next year than they currently have, but education officials said Tuesday that’s barely enough to keep higher education on track after two hurricanes.

    Many colleges lost students and their tuition dollars, and other universities around the country are recruiting Louisiana’s top-notch faculty after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some higher education campuses are struggling with financial problems that are forcing layoffs and cost-cutting moves.

"We’re anything but robust and strong at the present time. In fact, I would use the term ‘fragile,’" LSU System President William Jenkins told the House Appropriations Committee, which is reviewing in detail Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s budget proposal for next year.

The governor included $91 million more for colleges in the year that begins July 1 on top of what the schools are currently receiving. According to a House financial analysis, higher education would have a nearly $2.5 billion budget – $1.1 billion of that from general state tax dollars.

The increase for the schools, however, comes after the colleges cut nearly $75 million this year to help the state cope with a post-hurricane budget deficit, and it doesn’t make up for lost tuition, fees and other income sources caused by the hurricanes.

Commissioner of Higher Educa-tion Joe Savoie said Blanco’s boost in higher education dollars next year wouldn’t plug college budget holes, but would instead be directed to specific programs, like beefed-up training in construction trades, increases in professors’ pay and coverage of the rising costs of health care and retirement.

"These are very targeted investments aimed at very critical and core weaknesses," Savoie said.

Officials with the LSU, Southern and University of Louisiana systems applauded the $31 million pay raise, which would bump up the average pay for professors by about 5 percent, saying it would help stem the loss of faculty.

LSU’s flagship campus in Baton Rouge wants to raise students’ college fees $150 per semester, but that proposal – which requires legislative approval – has gotten a frosty initial reception from lawmakers. And members of the House Appropriations Committee didn’t show much enthusiasm for tuition or fee hikes.

Rep. Charles McDonald, D-Bastrop, said he understands the state’s flagship university campus should charge more than other Louisiana colleges, but he said he expected lawmakers would be cautious about charging students more.

"I’m very concerned about holding the line on tuition when our families are experiencing such tough times," McDonald said.

LSU Chancellor Sean O’Keefe said he thinks tuition at the university should be increased, but Savoie said a tuition hike plan that didn’t get legislative backing last year wasn’t being pushed this session.