Beam: Higher education needs help

By By Jim Beam / American Press

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 well-educated citizens from other

states are waiting in the wings.

• • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com