A sharp disparity in how much money the state doles out to Louisiana’s colleges and universities is causing a major behind-the-scenes fight in the top echelons of higher education.

The dispute pits the state’s two-year community and technical colleges against its four-year institutions, with a few exceptions.

The state Board of Regents, which sets policy for higher education, sent a budget proposal to Gov. Bobby Jindal in October that would end the funding differences next year by giving each university and college the same percentage of state aid. The Regents have requested $87 million in new money next year that would be used to equalize funding for each institution at 65 percent of the amount prescribed by a complicated formula.

But Sandra Woodley, president of the nine-member University of Louisiana System — along with F. King Alexander, the president and chancellor of Louisiana State University, and Ron Mason, the president of the Southern University System — has been pushing an alternative plan that would keep much of the current system in place, to the dismay of the two-year institutions.

At one end of the scale, Louisiana State University at Alexandria receives 74 percent this year of its state funding prescribed under the formula, while Bossier Parish Community College receives only 39 percent, according to state figures.

64%University of New Orleans’ funding share51%Delgado Community College’s funding share

Jim Henderson, Bossier’s chancellor, said the current funding formula “punishes” his institution for its successes, which include an 85 percent increase in enrollment over the past four years.

Southern University at New Orleans (67 percent) and the University of New Orleans (64 percent), both four-year schools, are among the institutions that receive more than the average 56 percent share of its prescribed state aid, while Delgado Community College gets only 51 percent.

Not every four-year institution is above the average. Louisiana State University’s main campus receives 53 percent.

Higher education presidents and chancellors met in Baton Rouge Wednesday morning to discuss the funding disparities, with some participating via phone.

Jindal will signal whether he accepts the Regents’ proposal when he submits his state budget to the Legislature on Jan. 24. The governor and lawmakers will settle the funding dispute when they pass a budget as required during the 2014 legislative session, which convenes in March.

Among legislators, the four-year universities have one advantage because they are more prestigious and graduate more students. But the 13 two-year colleges have campuses in 53 of the state’s 64 parishes, and they pulled an end-run on the Board of Regents in 2013 by getting the Legislature to approve a $250 million construction spree over the Regents’ objections.

Five years of declining state funds for higher ed

The funding disparity has emerged over the past several years. Analysts blame several factors: a dramatic drop in state aid for higher education during Jindal’s tenure, varying enrollment trends among the institutions, and the Board of Regents’ policy of cushioning institutions where enrollment has declined by limiting the loss of state dollars. The policy generally benefits four-year schools because their enrollment has grown less than two-year schools.

60%Average of prescribed funding at four-year colleges50%Average of prescribed funding at community & technical colleges

The funding formula “was designed for standstill budgets or slow growth,” said Bubba Rasberry, who is the Jindal-appointed Regents chairman. “We’ve had five years of declines” in funding.

Asked whether the disparities are causing angst among higher education policymakers, Rasberry said: “There’s no question about it.”

He added: “It’s no one’s fault. No one is turning a deaf ear toward these issues.”

But some aren’t eager to discuss the problem.

Joe May, the normally pugnacious head of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, did not respond to an interview request Tuesday. May has threatened to file a lawsuit alleging that the current funding formula violates the state Constitution by shortchanging the two-year institutions. Quintin Taylor, a spokesman for the system, said Tuesday that the community and technical colleges prefer “to work through the process” rather than discuss the issues publicly.

The dispute has been kept in-house up to now. State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, and state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, chair the legislative education committees. Both said they were unaware of it.

Enrollment increasing rapidly at two-year schools, but not funding

The biggest factor driving the schism has been the $700 million cut in state aid to higher education during Jindal’s tenure as governor. As a result, state aid as a percentage of spending at the various colleges and universities has dropped from 70 percent to 30 percent. Tuition increases have made up only some of the shortfall because Jindal in some cases has cut state aid by as much as the tuition increases have produced.

At the same time, the community and technical colleges have grown rapidly, from 60,810 students in 2007 to 81,611 in 2012, according to the Board of Regents. Enrollment at the four-year universities barely rose from 136,710 to 139,269 during the same period.

34%Enrollment increase at two-year institutions, 2007-122%Enrollment increase at four-year institutions

Until recently, having more students meant more dollars. But with some institutions suffering sharp drops in enrollment in recent years, the Board of Regents imposed a plan known as “stop-loss.” It has meant that no institution would lose more than 4 percent of its state funding per year, even if it should have lost more due to falling enrollment.

With overall state aid dropping, stop-loss has meant that some institutions got more money than the formula called for while others got less.

Jim Purcell, the outgoing commissioner of the state’s Department of Higher Education, pushed in recent months to end the disparities. At his behest, the Regents in October decided to give every college and university 65 percent of their prescribed share from the state. That would create winners and losers, as some institutions would get more money and others less.

The funding alternative proposed by the heads of the four-year systems calls for junking the Regents’ proposal and giving no institution less money next year. The funding differences that Purcell and the Regents want to eliminate would remain in place under her plan.

Success measured by number of jobs or number of degrees?

The proposal pushed by the four-year universities calls for new state funding to be distributed based on how well institutions do in “degree production in high-demand fields.” As Woodley explained in an interview Tuesday, “It’s important that the dollars follow the students.”

Henderson, from Bossier Parish Community College, called her proposal “a non-starter” because it would continue to mostly favor the four-year institutions. However, he added, “She’s not saying she’s putting a line in the sand. It’s part of an evolving conversation.” Rasberry also said proposals would change in the coming weeks.

Like Henderson, Monty Sullivan, Delgado’s chancellor, believes that state funding should depend more on how many students get jobs – a metric that favors the two-year institutions. Their dropout rates are higher than four-year colleges because many students gain enough skills in school to find a job without getting a degree.

“It’s critical that we invest in research but also workforce development,” Sullivan said. “The performance measures should reflect the community colleges’ mission: to put people to work and how well our students are transferring and getting baccalaureate degrees.”

On Tuesday, Delgado graduated its largest class ever — 995 students. Given the demand, it could turn out even more nurses, machinists and respiratory technicians with a bigger budget, Sullivan said.

William Wainwright, chancellor of Bogalusa-based Northshore Technical Community College, said that with higher state aid, he also could turn out more nurses, machinists and diesel technicians. Enrollment has grown by 73 percent from 2006 to 2013, he said, but state aid has not kept pace.

Northshore gets only 47 percent of its prescribed state funding this year, the lowest of any institution after Bossier Parish Community College. “It’s inhibiting our ability to broaden our mission,” Wainwright said.

This story was changed after publication to include the heads of the other four-year university systems that are working with Sandra Woodley on the alternative funding proposal.

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....