Just a few months ago the situation facing higher education in Louisiana seemed pretty dire. After already experiencing budget cuts of more than $300 million over the last couple of years, the state’s colleges and universities were told to prepare for a gargantuan cut in the range of another $400 million for the coming fiscal year. That would have essentially worked out to a 50% budget cut to post-secondary education since 2008.

For awhile, there had been some buzz that the cuts would likely be much smaller. Now, the Jindal administration is signaling that’s the case and that they’re looking at submitting a budget plan that would reduce the cuts to the range of 10%, or maybe even less. That’s good news, of course, especially after the heated rhetoric that surfaced from legislators and others around higher education last summer and fall. But it should be tempered with the reality that continued budget reductions to post-secondary education are all but certain.

While the coming budget year was characterized for a long time as the “cliff year” because of the loss of around a billion dollars in federal stimulus dollars, that likely won’t actually be the case. Instead, it’s probably another “step year” as cuts continue toward the bottom of a staircase that we haven’t reached yet.

Why still more cuts? There are a few reasons:
1. Some of the budget cuts that were originally proposed will almost certainly be mitigated by the use of significant amounts on one-time funds. That means whatever problems those dollars alleviate this year will have to be dealt with next year.
2. State leaders will probably seek to reduce other cuts by pushing proposals to either increase tuition or fees, or provide for certain budgetary and operational efficiencies that should result in financial savings. Several of those ideas will take a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, so they’re far from guaranteed.
3. Lawmakers may have some completely different ideas and some actually think more big cuts are in order.

Those are all reasons why higher education is still likely in the middle of a series of cuts and the end isn’t in sight yet. But there’s more. The Lumina Foundation for Education is a national organization that is working closely with Louisiana and other states to improve post-secondary education completion rates. It begins its recent report, Navigating the New Normal with some cautionary words: “Economists may be signaling the recession is over, but higher education will feel the pain for years to come.”

Besides some funding issues that have impacted Louisiana specifically, Lumina says the national recession has been so broad and deep that it may take close to a decade for state revenues across the country to recover. That’s why it warns higher education to figure out how to transform itself to not only survive but do a better job in the “new normal.”

CABL agrees. In our recent CABL Vision for Higher Education we say that restructuring of higher education is a necessity in the wake of the current fiscal picture:

If budget cuts are going to lead to the “downsizing” of higher education, we must do more than simply shrink it. We must change it in ways that are strategic and deliberate and based on data that support the state’s educational, economic and workforce priorities. That is the piece that is currently missing in Louisiana – an agenda or vision articulated by our state’s leaders that explains how we will preserve the most critical elements of post-secondary education and position it for the future.

Lumina says much the same thing. It says that higher education survived past economic downturns through spending cuts and higher tuition, but that won’t work any more. Still, it says, “The challenges presented by this dramatically altered economic terrain offer opportunity for thoughtful alignment of spending with the goals of access, quality and improved attainment, which would be difficult under usual circumstances.”

It further challenges state and higher education leaders to abandon the business-as-usual approach to financing higher education, increase productivity by working smarter, and do so in a way that remains focused on the goal of increasing education attainment. The good news is that Louisiana is indeed looking at some of the ideas Lumina has suggested. The question is whether we as a state have the fortitude to establish clear priorities, preserve high quality and emerge in the years ahead with a higher education system that is sustainable and meets our state’s needs.

That means doing more than just cutting a budget across-the-board, as history shows we tend to prefer. But it’s critical that as we deal with the immediate budget issues, we must also keep an eye focused tightly on our long-term goals. The cuts will continue to come, but we can’t afford to let them threaten our future.

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