Higher education fuels the economy

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was written before the state Senate approved a budget that restores millions of dollars to higher education. Because the bill differs substantially from the one passed by the House, a compromise must now be worked out.Last month, a House budget panel started amending Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed budget, which, if enacted, would cut more than $219 million from Louisiana higher education. If Jindal’s budget passes as written, colleges and universities in our state would face the daunting challenge of cutting between 20 and 30 percent of their budgets.

Colleges and universities are so ubiquitous that we forget to look at higher education as industry. I was surprised to read a recent quote from Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, who said, “the money should stay in the economic development fund, where it could be used to attract industries that in turn would help grow Louisiana’s tax base.”

As associate dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of New Orleans, I know well that postsecondary institutions are the employers of highly specialized talent who contribute mightily to the tax base. And our “products” — college graduates — contribute to the middle class.

Rep. Fannin should know how much Louisiana Tech and Grambling mean to the local economies of North Louisiana. Ask the mayor of Natchitoches what cutting Northwestern State University would mean to his tax base. Where would Shreveport be without LSU-Shreveport and Southern at Shreveport?

The loss of degree programs, departments or entire colleges can be as devastating to a community as the loss of a car plant in Detroit or a chicken plant in Farmerville.

In addition, where will our out-of-work chemists, engineers and computer scientists look for work? Alabama?

The tax burdens we create by laying off so many middle- and working-class citizens are innumerable.

A bird in the hand beats two in the bush. Why cut our productive, anchor industries for the potential of the Louisiana Mega Projects Development Fund?

In fact, the major growth industries of technology, biomedical science and computer science need college faculty and students to help complete major projects financed by agencies such as the Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, and National Science Foundation.

These are the breeding grounds for industries of the future — computers, alternative energy and medicine. These are mega-industries. And the state of higher education is a major factor in their decision to move to a community.

Lawmakers and state administrators should use the Louisiana Mega Projects Development Fund as it was intended. If part of the fund can be used to save industries that will in turn bring new businesses to Louisiana, then shifting these funds is a good political and practical strategy.

By shifting economic development money, we can help the colleges and universities attract the very industries sought by the program.

Eroding stable industries for the sake of potential ones defeats the purpose of the economic development fund.

When the Senate has its turn, let’s hope it can make the compromises we need to save and create jobs.