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Higher Education’s Waiting Game

“It’s horrible. It’s as bad as we’ve seen, for sure.”

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, says the budget cuts looming ahead for Louisiana’s public colleges and universities are nothing short of brutal.

“We’re talking about three, four, five hundred million—they’re saying—in one year? That is an insurmountable obstacle for these schools.”

Erwin attended Monday’s meeting between governing board members for all of the state’s higher education systems, and some influential lawmakers. With the governor’s budget proposal due to be unveiled Friday, all are asking the same question: How bad will it be?

“Currently, if we were to take the numbers as they are—and we do believe this is a worst-case scenario—that means we have to cancel about 2000 classes for the fall,” LSU System President F. King Alexander declares. And that’s just at LSU in Baton Rouge.

The current year’s budget allocates $830-million for state colleges and universities. Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Rallo says that number also includes TOPS funding.

“Take TOPS out of our budget, because it makes our budget look a lot larger—when, as you know, it isn’t,” Rallo says.

Let’s do the math. Louisiana is spending $250-million on TOPS this year. Subtract that from $830-million, and you’re left with $580-million. Now take $500-million away from that…

Neither lawmakers nor college officials would give specifics on their plans for counteracting this doomsday scenario—perhaps because they are too busy figuratively breathing into paper bags to avert panic attacks. But House Speaker Chuck Kleckley does say he has staff working on alternatives to the total evisceration of higher education.

“Let’s see what the Governor’s budget looks like Friday,” Kleckley says. “Then I think it’s time to put our solutions on the table and see what we need to do to overcome these cuts that are being discussed for higher ed.”