‘Best case scenario’ for UL system is bleak

Dan Reneau is the president of the Univeristy of Louisiana system (Photo: COURTESY PHOTO)

Dan Reneau, University of Louisiana system president, predicted to the Manship School News Service Sunday that under the “best case scenario” for cuts to higher education, at least one university in his system will have to close for two to three weeks and others will have to suspend operations. He declined to say which one.

The heads of the state’s higher education systems gave sobering worst-case scenarios on how budget cuts could devastate colleges. Legislators began deciding how to best bridge the current year’s $940 million budget gap as the special session convened.

Reneau, who has been in higher education nearly 50 years and taken 25 cuts to universities, said the current crisis is the biggest he’s ever seen.

“Now we’ve got the TOPS [shortfall] there, and all universities are gonna have a hard time with it. And some are going to have a disastrous time with it,” Reneau said.

The best-case scenario, as presented by Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, is a roughly $70 million cut to higher education. The worst case scenario, which prompted outcry from university leaders, is a $204 million cut.

Reneau warned of “lots of furloughs,” and called the crisis “bleak.” But he also said cuts are nothing new to him, as his system took a 50 percent reduction in funding from 2008 to 2013. He is optimistic that solutions will be found, he added.

“But I’m not saying we’ll be getting out with no cuts.”

Sujuan Boutte, president of the agency that oversees TOPS, told legislators if they cannot find money to fully fund TOPS, the minimum ACT score for TOPS recipients would be raised to 28 in the next fiscal year. The current requirement for TOPS Tech, the lowest of four TOPS awards, is 17.

Students receiving TOPS this semester are at no risk of losing their scholarships, said Boutte, who urged students worried about their eligibility in the coming years to file their FAFSAs and keep studying for the ACT tests.

The scenarios are based on the possibility that the legislature could find no extra money for higher education and the state’s financial assistance programs in the current fiscal year, ending in June, and the next fiscal year. Legislators will likely find some money for higher education and TOPS, but budget cuts of some levels to campuses are a near certainty.

Currently $60 million must go to TOPS each year from a tobacco settlement fund. If the rest—about $200 million, is not funded, more than 37,000 students would not receive TOPS anymore. The students who would receive the $60 million in scholarship money would have to score a 28 or higher on the ACT, and some of those from high-income families would still not receive the scholarship.

The community and technical college system head, Monty Sullivan, also warned of 129 layoffs throughout the state with a $70 million cut, and 1,200 terminations with a $204 million reduction.

“There is not more with less with community and technical colleges,” Sullivan told the committee. “It’s an honest statement. I can assure you if we could do it we would.”

Other leaders echoed Sullivan’s sentiment. LSU System President F. King Alexander reiterating the many savings his universities have been forced to find, as higher education has been cut dramatically in past years.

Legislators questioned the system presidents on whether merging or closing some institutions would save the state considerable money. Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo and Alexander indicated savings from merging or closing institutions would not be seen for four to five years, leaving the short-term problem unresolved.

Board of Regents Chair Richard Lipsey told legislators that while the state should look long-term for structural changes in higher education, the current problems need to be addressed before some schools are forced to close.

“We do have to look long-range,” Lipsey said. “But right now you cannot put us out of business in the next 45 days.”

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