Tonight I finally got the opportunity to see James Carville’s much anticipated commencement address to the LSU Manship School of Mass Communications graduates on YouTube.
As I’m just as entertained as I am inspired by Carville, I admit I was looking forward to the “special words, and even some special effects, for Gov. Jindal.” And my initial Twitter reaction to “history will hunt you down” was that history has already about caught up to our illustrious non-governor.
Well, since the special effects were absent from the YouTube video, and seemed largely comprised of video clips from my generation’s paean to higher ed, Animal House, I’m not terribly disappointed that I wasn’t able to either go in person or see the live stream (I was driving at the time and my phone wouldn’t even stream the audio anyway).
But I will address Carville’s challenge to the next governor which really was the rhetorical special effect tour de force of the evening. For those who missed it, he offered $5,000 to the next governor of whatever party who would support and pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing funding for LSU at the public SEC average.
Within minutes, at least two of our gubernatorial candidates–Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republican Jay Dardenne–responded on social media that they would take up Carville’s challenge if elected governor. Dardenne even said that Carville could “hold onto his checkbook because it shouldn’t take a campaign contribution to make that happen.”
Well, this might be really presumptuous of me, but I’m going to issue my own challenge to Mr. Carville. His heart and intent are most definitely in the right place. We absolutely need legislation that will ensure that LSU and state higher education in general are funded adequately so that they remain more than “state” in name only.
But we’re going to have to tweak that proposed constitutional amendment a little bit to make it really meaningful. It might not be as sound bite-y, but LSU really needs more than what he proposed which at the end of the day might only be enough to keep the fiscal bottom from falling out, which is pretty much where we are now anyway. And I’m sure from the context of his speech that Carville had quite a bit more than just keeping the bottom from falling out in mind.
This is because the same “market forces” that have just about decimated higher education in Louisiana haven’t been that kind to other schools in the SEC, either. And while Carville says that this isn’t a red or blue issue but Purple and Gold, most of the SEC schools are in red states which have also been doing a phenomenal job of defunding higher education while we’ve been over here trying just to survive. It’s just that Jindal has done it in a much more spectactular way than have some of our neighbors.
Let’s pick a few.
According to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 16.5% of its support comes from state appropriations. Yes, it’s better than LSU’s current 13%, but the only reason why we might want to grasp at that straw is because otherwise we are staring down an 82% cut of what little we now get.
OK, so we hate Alabama because Nick Saban’s there. But don’t hate them because they’re getting way more in state appropriations because they’re not. 17% according to IPEDS.
University of Florida’s state appropriations dropped to less than tuition funding in FY 2012 but have since rebounded to be about the same percentage-wise. According to IPEDS it is 22%.
Rocky Top’s percentage of state appropriations held steady at 17% of its total budget in 2014 and 2015. (Wow, is 17% a trend here in the SEC? Is it possible that this is all that Mr. Carville’s proposed amendment might get us?) This chart from 2009 is a few years old now, but it clearly shows that Tennessee’s state appropriations used to be much, much higher, and that like in Louisiana, tuition increases are filling in the fiscal gaps.
What this all shows us is that while Louisiana might be an outlier, it isn’t by that much.
This is part of a very disturbing national trend, in which we as a nation are systematically disinvesting in higher education. It’s just that this year we in Louisiana are faced with the very real possibility that we will be almost completely disinvest-ed.
And to be fair, this isn’t just a problem limited to Southern, “red” states. I poked around in IPEDS and found many flagship institutions across the nation with equally low or lower levels of state appropriations even in solidly Democratic states.
Carville is right. This isn’t a red or blue issue. It’s dollar green.
So, my humble suggestion to Mr. Carville is… let’s continue to be an outlier, but in the other direction. Guarantee stable levels of funding for and investment in higher education. Don’t tie it to other state averages like we did with GRAD Act’s tuition rates. Tuition rates continued to go up because SREB average tuitions also went up. State appropriations would just fluctuate up and down with other state averages… and that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
You want to put your money on something that will really make a difference? A constitutional amendment that will guarantee stable, reliable, year-to-year funding for LSU and Louisiana higher education in general.