Have you ever had one of those dreams where you’re trying your hardest to get to class on time but you just can’t get there? Or where you realize during final exams that you were registered for classes you never attended? What about the one where you realize that all of the classes you need to graduate have been cancelled completely?
That last scenario is becoming frighteningly possible for college students in Louisiana, where a state revenue crisis may lead to unprecedented cuts to the higher education system. As one LSU student told Inside Higher Ed: “I’m most scared that come fall, I’m going to wake up the next day…and some of my classes won’t be there anymore. Then my whole graduation plan is completely altered.” According to IHE:
Louisiana’s general fund contribution to higher education this year will be $924 million. But unless the legislature takes action within the next 45 days, that number plummets to $391 million for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.
That kind of catastrophic funding decrease isn’t just a nightmare for college students, faculty, and staff; it also has huge negative implications for the state’s economy and the economic mobility of its people. Like we said last week, a Southern economic mobility strategy must include education because a young person’s chances of moving up the income ladder are significantly dependent on educational attainment.
While the situation in Louisiana is certainly the grimmest and most immediate, state higher education systems—and the students and local economies that rely on them—are facing a multi-year pattern of disinvestment. Public funding for higher education is dropping, and the cost burden is shifting to students and families through increased tuition:
Public funding cuts occurred just as enrollment was increasing: full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment in public higher education between 2009 and 2014 grew at a larger rate than the national average of 3.9 percent in every Southern state except Alabama, Louisiana, and West Virginia. Enrollment in Texas grew by 23.6 percent since 2008. (Enrollment growth, which came down slightly since 2013, skyrocketed during and after the recession, as young people stayed in school longer due to poor labor market options and unemployed and underemployed workers sought additional education or retraining.)
Spending per student has decreased in every state except Alaska and North Dakota since 2008, ranging in Southern states from a 21.6 percent decrease in West Virginia to a 43.2 percent decrease in Louisiana:
(The SHEEO report, which looks at educational appropriations per FTE, shows the same patterns: appropriations per FTE have decreased in every Southern state since 2009, and in most, at a larger rate than the US average of 13.3 percent, and in Alabama, by 38.9 percent.)
Cuts to higher education funding are just one example of disinvestment from public services that are crucial to individual economic mobility and the stability and growth of state economies. Some of this prolonged period of disinvestment can be attributed to recession-era tax revenue drops and balanced budget amendments. But some of it also stems from policy decisions to cut or hold the line on taxes and to reduce services within limited revenues. While these steps may balance budgets in the short term, they have long-term consequences for all Southerners.