Taxpayers’ role in funding public higher education is changing


The days of public higher education being funded mostly by the taxpayer and the remainder by the student are a thing of the past, Stephen Hulbert, president of Nicholls State University, said at the monthly luncheon of the St. Mary Industrial Group on Monday.

“I want to talk to you about something called public good versus personal good,” Hulbert said.

“Many of our grandparents enjoyed what was considered a public good after World War II, which was a low-cost public higher education to educate a workforce that was needed,” Hulbert said.

Publicly funded low-cost education was the norm until the mid-1990s, he said.

“Things began to change. Louisiana was slow to catch on to this but in the last four years has jumped on board,” he said of the trend of states to not fund the majority of the costs of public higher education.

“What has happened in this time is that the old policy of access to low-cost higher education is being put aside, in some cases out of absolute necessity,” he said, “And you’re seeing it in California and Michigan, states that have been hard hit by the financial downturn.”

The old “public good” model “is being replaced rather quietly with the reality that we are saying that it’s a personal good,” Hulbert said, adding that he wanted people to think about that.

Major changes in how higher education in Louisiana is funded have taken place in the last 10 years, especially in 2008 and 2009, Hulbert said.

“Before we started this slide, the state appropriation at Nicholls was 63 percent and the tuition revenues were about 37 percent. Today, it is reversed,” he said of the tuition increases and the decreases in state funding.

“That’s a 48 percent decline in just four years. That’s dramatic,” Hulbert said.

About 60 percent of NSU students are first-generation college students, he said.

“These are not people who are joining fraternities and sororities and spending weekends partying,” Hulbert said. “These are the people working multiple jobs who often have family responsibility. It’s the history of this region, and that’s why Nicholls has grown from a two-year institution to a four-year institution.”

Hulbert talked about the progress of new programs at the university, how it is responding to business needs and the new residence halls on campus.

“They’re not the type of residence halls that many of you know,” he said. “We’re not talking about gang showers. We’ve created in our children and grandchildren monsters who expect to have a private bathroom and expect to have things that we never dreamed of having in school. These facilities are part of marketing a campus.”

Hulbert also spoke of advances in the nursing department.

“Nicholls has a reputation for nursing. It’s one of our strongest programs,” he said. “Eight out of 10 nurses in this region are Nicholls graduates. We’re proud of those individuals and what they represent.

“We’ve heard a constant barrage of comments from nurses and doctors and administrators at hospitals that they want nursing opportunity at a master’s degree level.”

Hulbert also spoke of a new maritime management program.

“This is something that is being done in part with the business community,” he said.

“We’ve heard for years from our donor base that the old days of being able to take someone out of the bayous and making him a ship captain are passed. Today, you need extraordinarily well-developed technical skills and a management background.”

Many local industries are behind the development of the program, including Edison Schouest and Bollinger Shipyards, he said.

“We took a $5.2 million budget cut in the last couple of months. We could not have added this program without the support of the maritime community,” Hulbert said.

Hulbert also spoke of the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, which he said “Gives great visibility to the university,” and is the only culinary program at a public university dedicated to the preservation of a particular cuisine.

“Our graduates are now dispersed well beyond the gulf. We have Nicholls graduates in Paris, France, in Bahrain, you name it, all over the world,” he said.

Hulbert concluded by saying that the decades of public universities receiving state support at levels of 60 to 70 percent of funding are gone.

“I can tell you that unless we find a balance between state appropriation, regional community support, and student tuition, we’re going to do incredible damage to our post-secondary education,” he said.

“The reality is that this state doesn’t have the wherewithal to support public education at the 60 percent level any more. We understand that. There have to be partnerships,” he said.

“We want the independence to be able to make our decisions and run our own business, and hopefully in a way that benefits the student in the end,” he said.

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