College cuts spark numbers dispute

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Louisiana’s higher education chief and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration are at odds over how to frame the depth of state budget cuts to public colleges, in a gloomy dispute that only five years of continued financial reductions can offer.

Is the cut $625 million? $294 million? $419 million? How about $220 million?

Depends on who you ask and how you look at the figures – and whether you want to make the impact of repeated budget slashing seem less damaging to the state’s public education system.

Even data is political at the Capitol.

Since the start of the new year, Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell has offered an eye-popping tally of how much state money has been stripped from campuses since 2008 and how tuition increases on students haven’t filled the gap.

Purcell says Jindal and lawmakers have shrunk annual state financing for higher education by $625 million over five years.

However, the Jindal administration is trying to temper ideas that the Republican governor may have damaged education in his state.

As Purcell has outlined the reductions, Jindal’s office has responded with its own data, suggesting the cuts aren’t as deep as Purcell describes, in an information battle over how to read and interpret facts and figures.

A sort-of rebuttal distributed by the governor’s office after Purcell’s latest presentation to the House and Senate education committees says higher education funding cuts are really about $220 million. The Jindal administration offsets cuts to the campuses with tuition increases and other college revenue sources to get to its figure.

The true image of how deeply colleges and universities have been cut probably is somewhere in between. But it’s hard to argue that colleges have repeatedly taken the brunt of reductions in recent years and that those steep drops in funding likely have had an impact on the type of education students receive.

Purcell said schools have increased class sizes, cut faculty and reduced student services and programs, so students are paying higher tuition while getting fewer offerings on campus. The governor’s press office counters that the schools are making improvements and performance gains, even though they’re getting less money.

Lawmakers gave the schools limited ability to raise tuition in recent years, but with caps that haven’t kept up with the cuts or other universities in the South. Louisiana’s public colleges have been allowed to boost tuition by up to 10 percent per year, if they meet certain performance standards under a 2010 law called the GRAD Act.

Each year as tuition rises, however, Jindal and lawmakers have then cut state funding further, so the higher tuition for students is used as an offset for state spending on campuses, in essence shifting costs to students and their families.

Data from the Board of Regents shows tuition has increased $331 million since the budget cuts began, offsetting some of the $625 million hit. That could drop the real reduction since 2008 to about $294 million.

Purcell also notes that retirement, health care and insurance costs have grown $125 million since then. If that gets tacked onto the other cuts, higher education is getting about $419 million less to cover expenses than it did five years ago, even with tuition increases.

Pick a number, any number. Here’s an interesting one: Since 2008, Louisiana’s state financial support for higher education has dropped by more than 31 percent, third-highest in the nation behind only Arizona and New Hampshire.

That information is from Grapevine, a respected tracker of state tax support for colleges and universities overseen by Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Education Policy.

The arguments over the depth of college budget cuts in Louisiana may seem academic or purely political, but they do matter.

How lawmakers and the governor view the data will help decide whether they agree to further increase student tuition and whether the Legislature will ever agree to give up its tuition-setting authority entirely.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.