- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - LSU System President F. King Alexander gave lawmakers a bleak picture Wednesday about the impact of years of budget cuts, describing faculty and students getting poached by out-of-state colleges as per-student spending plummets.

“We would take notice if we were losing football coaches,” Alexander told the House Appropriations Committee, just a day before lawmakers are expected to make what he called their 16th cut to higher education in nine years.

Alexander said per-student spending at LSU’s main campus is 46th out of the nation’s 50 flagship universities. He said LSU consistently outperforms many higher-spending peers, but “another cut to higher education furthers the dire straits that we’re in.”

“I don’t know how much more efficient we can become,” he said. “If you expect us to compete with Ohio State, fund us appropriately.”

State financing for public colleges in Louisiana has been slashed by $700 million since 2008, as former Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers struggled to rebalance budgets after tax cuts and declining oil and gas revenues. Some of that funding was replaced by higher tuition and fees, but not all.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has proposed another $18 million cut to help close a deficit from last year. And for the first time, lawmakers didn’t fully fund the TOPS scholarship program, which had paid 100 percent of tuition for students meeting performance benchmarks. Instead, the program is covering 42 percent of tuition in the spring.

Alexander said the TOPS reduction is a blow to LSU’s main campus, where 75 percent of students receive the award. Enrollment at LSU is down about 3 percent for the spring semester. Alexander expects some of that dip is because of the TOPS cut. He said uncertainty about the program “has the potential to drive our best and brightest out of the state.”

Other higher education leaders echoed Alexander’s concerns. The Board of Regents is seeking a $189 million state financing increase in the upcoming 2017-18 budget year, to fully fund TOPS and add new dollars to campuses.

Lawmakers expressed concern, but none promised more money as they face a budget riddled with holes.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, worried about the value of his LSU degree, as nationally-recognized faculty and higher-performing students leave for out-of-state colleges actively recruiting in Louisiana.

“This day is the worst day of (budget) hearings every year, because we talk about what should be the hope for the future of our state, and then we talk about how much we’ve disinvested in it,” Leger said.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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