BEAM: Higher Ed Needs Help

Southwest Louisiana over the next two or three years is scheduled to become home for one of the most thriving industrial complexes in the country. Unfortunately, there is some question about whether the citizens who live in this state will be able to take full advantage of the thousands of job opportunities opening up at the half-dozen or more billion-dollar economic development projects that have been announced for this corner of the state.

How, for example, does the state supply just the 500 or more engineers who it is estimated will be needed to staff these gigantic projects? And are our community and technical colleges going to be able to train the thousands of workers needed to fill the technological positions?

Political leaders won’t admit it, but the higher education our people will need to qualify for those jobs has been crippled since 2008 because of continuing state budget cuts. You knew things were going from bad to worse when some members of the state Board of Regents last week told higher education leaders to quit complaining. And regents are supposed to be looking out for higher education’s best interests.

Jim Purcell, state commissioner of higher education, ran into a brick wall when he asked regents to lobby the Legislature for more support for public colleges.

“We need you to help us,” Purcell said. “A lot of states are coming out of the recession and starting to reinvest in higher education. We are not one of those.”

Consider what has happened at McNeese State University and Sowela Technical and Community College. They are the two local institutions that will be charged with training many of those citizens who would like to become future employees at those billion-dollar facilities.

McNeese’s budget has been cut from $43 to $22 million over the last five years, a 49 percent reduction. Sowela’s budget was $7.9 million in 2008 and that was down to $5.6 million five years later, a 29 percent cut.

Yes, institutions have been allowed to increase tuition, but the added funds don’t come close to closing the gap. Louisiana’s other higher education institutions are facing identical funding problems, and they could help train workers for those local jobs.

Former Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco had higher education at the top of their agendas. By 2008, Louisiana had reached the Southern Regional Education Board average in funding for higher education. Since then, there has been a steady decline in state funding and a net loss of $300 million in state funds.

Obviously, that doesn’t bother some members of the Board of Regents. Joseph Wiley of Gonzales, vice chairman of the board, told Purcell after his plea for lobbying help that regents needed to come up with a new strategy other than complaining about budget cuts before legislators start tuning them out. He said individual college systems needed to do their own lobbying.

“We really need to get off what’s happened in the last four years,” Wiley said.

Playing as though everything is right with the world isn’t exactly the way to solve problems. You have to wonder whether some regents have forgotten how important higher education is to equipping young people for productive lives. A recent study, “College Funding in Context: Understanding the Difference in Higher Education Appropriations Across the States,” explains it well in its opening paragraph.

“Access to a post-secondary education is a vital aspect of the American dream, allowing for equality of opportunity and a stable pathway to the middle class for all who are willing to work for it regardless of their background and socioeconomic status,” the study said. “Higher education not only improves the prospects for the employment and earnings of individuals, but has benefits that feed back into communities and society as a whole…”

The technological age is the future, and it has pretty much passed Louisiana by. The funding study found the state ranks behind the rest of the country in terms of research and development and technological jobs that are so crucial to economic growth. Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have made some improvements in higher education. They passed the GRAD Act that makes performance rather than student population the criteria by which colleges and universities are evaluated. However, the cost of going to college has shifted from being a major state responsibility to parents and students who pay most of the costs through higher tuition.

The funding study mentioned earlier was done by researchers from Demos, a national, non-partisan public policy center located in New York City. It makes the point that state appropriations have historically been the most important source of funding for higher education, but state support has declined over the last two decades.

Those of us who have been around a long time remember when Southwest Louisiana failed to become the state’s oil business center during the last century. Lafayette seized the opportunity, and that is a major reason it has enjoyed major economic success.

Are we going to again not take full advantage of an economic bonanza because we couldn’t train our citizens to fill the jobs so they can benefit from the growth coming here over the next two years? You can be sure welleducated citizens from other states are waiting in the wings.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].



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