March 20, 2013 03:04

Louisiana's top higher education official said Tuesday that the state's investment in public colleges has sunk to its lowest level in more than 50 years when compared to income levels, and he's pushing for new tuition increases to offset some of the loss.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana's top higher education official said Tuesday that the state's investment in public colleges has sunk to its lowest level in more than 50 years when compared to income levels, and he's pushing for new tuition increases to offset some of the loss.

Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said more money is needed on campuses to train workers to fill in-demand jobs across the state.

"Even though we are making progress, we're not meeting the human capital needs," Purcell said, in advance of a presentation he'll be making to the Board of Regents about higher education funding and a push to ask lawmakers to change state tuition policy.

Purcell is asking lawmakers for more tuition-setting autonomy for college management boards, saying schools need the ability to charge higher tuition and fee rates for specialized and higher-cost programs, like engineering, advanced technology fields and nursing.

He noted the number of high-profile job announcements made by Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration in recent months. Purcell applauded the business announcements, but said Louisiana's colleges aren't turning out the number of specialized workers needed to fill the industry jobs that will be created in the coming years.

"Because of all the new job opportunities, we're the ones who really need to recommit to building our investment in higher education," he said.

He pointed to data by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education that showed Louisiana spends $6.67 for every $1,000 of personal income in the state. Purcell said that's the lowest state investment since the 1950s.

Since Louisiana began to grapple with a series of budget problems in 2008, Jindal and lawmakers have stripped $625 million in state funding from higher education, according to the Board of Regents.

Tuition hikes offset some of the cut, leaving public colleges with a $258 million net loss, according to Regents data.

Jindal's budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1 proposes to strip another $75 million in state financing and offset that with tuition increases that already have been approved by lawmakers.

But much of the state funding included in Jindal's higher education budget relies on one-time sources of money, like property sales and legal settlements that haven't yet happened.

Purcell said colleges need to raise tuition to reach a reliable source of funding for schools as the state's spending on higher education continues to drop.

Lawmakers have been reticent to grant further tuition increases and have rejected previous attempts to charge different tuition rates for high-demand, high-cost programs. Purcell will again pursue the idea in the regular legislative session that begins April 8.

"All you have to do is continue to spread the gospel of building the human capital of this state," he said. "We do know from all data, they need workers to fill jobs now."

The legislation hasn't yet been filed, so it's not yet clear how much money could be raised by the proposal.

Jindal hasn't said whether he'd support new rounds of tuition increases beyond those already approved by lawmakers.

"We are currently reviewing all legislation that's been filed for the upcoming session, and our top priority for education bills is whether or not the policy is good for our students," Jindal spokesman Sean Lansing said in a statement.

Lansing defended the governor's budget proposal as preserving funding to campuses and avoiding higher education cuts, and he expressed confidence in the schools' abilities to turn out enough workers to meet demands. For example, he cited LSU's College of Engineering increasing undergraduate enrollment by 41 percent since 2009.

His statement also took a dig at Purcell.

"We know that our students are getting the skills needed to find jobs in the 21st century workforce. They deserve a leader who shares that vision and has a plan for the future, not one who is living in the past," Lansing wrote.