Coverage of the Louisiana Budget Crisis, Impact on HBCUs

Leaders from Louisiana’s public colleges and universities addressed members of the state’s joint budget committee yesterday, in an unprecedented weekend meeting to address the looming budget crisis.

The meeting served as a backdrop for officials bracing their campuses for what could lead to suspension of classes, massive furloughs, cancellation of spring and some fall sports, and financial exigency, or academic bankruptcy. Experts say a $940 million statewide mid-year deficit may amount to higher education cuts ranging from $70 million to $204 million.

The crisis, the focus of a statewide address from Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, may have drastic results for historically black Grambling State University and the Southern University System.

GSU officials late last week announced the suspension of its search for a new athletic director, and during a down hall meeting, presented to students, faculty and alumni its short and long-term plans to address an anticipated $2.5 million in budget reductions. From the Monroe News-Star:

Travis Gray asked what the university is doing to reinstitute its undergraduate nursing program, which filed for exigency in August. She said she doesn’t think (Grambling State President Willie) Larkin bleeds black and gold, questioning his dedication to the university.

Larkin said it would take at least $500,000 to get the program back on its feet, and the university can’t apply to get the program reinstated until July. He said the university board had made its decision about the program before he came, but reinstating it would be a feather in his cap.

According to data presented by GSU officials, annual tuition costs have increased by $5,000 since 2011, while enrollment over the same period has decreased by more than 600 students.

Southern University System President Ray Belton last week wrote to stakeholders about Southern’s gains in enrollment and profile, but stopped short of doomsday scenarios he outlined in previous weeks regarding the budget cuts.

“Southern University, despite some fairly adverse conditions, is showing signs of growth and recovery from the impact of more than $53 million, or 54 percent, in cuts to our budget from the state over the last eight years. Last fall, the SU System’s overall enrollment increased by nearly four percent. The SU Baton Rouge freshman class enrollment increased by 31 percent and SUNO’s Fall 2015 freshman enrollment increased by 32 percent from the previous year. Even with nationwide low enrollment numbers for law schools, our SU Law Center’s fall enrollment was up 37 students last year. In a competitive community college market, SU Shreveport is enjoying another record enrollment for the second year in a row.”

Student tuition aid is also under the microscope, as Edwards says budget woes may force the end of public subsidies to the TOPS scholarship program. Designed to help high achieving, low-income students to earn a college degree, the Shreveport Times last week reported that the majority of recipients are from white, affluent households — a group that is now on high alert over the potential of eligibility changes and lost support.

Fears about merger and closure are distinct possibilities for Grambling and the Southern System, but may be logistically impossible to finance in such a short period of time. From Ed Central:

Arguably in even worse shape than LSU is the historically black Southern University System, as well as Louisiana’s Community and Technical College System. Some Southern campuses are already in financial exigency, for instance, and a deep enough cut could cause some campuses to close for good. Some legislators pressed the schools on cost cutting measures, such as merging schools. The heads of the systems said these savings were not a magic bullet, and that anyway merging campuses takes years of planning and is therefore not going solve this current crisis.

The special legislative budget session is scheduled to end on March 9.

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