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Local higher ed institutions hope for stabilized funding ahead of Board of Regents meeting

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SHREVEPORT - BOSSIER CITY, La. (KTBS) -

Skating on thin ice - an apt description for the current 'state of higher ed' in the Shreveport-Bossier area, after budgets have been stripped to the bone over the last six years, to the tune of $700 million dollars.

But with a slowly improving economy local educational leaders are optimistic, as the Louisiana Board of Regents meets in Shreveport for the first time in nearly six years.

"Quite frankly, I think we've weathered the storm, and it has literally been a storm."

Dr. Ray Belton, Chancellor of Southern University in Shreveport says the two-year college has had to adjust to depleted funding, and it hasn't always been easy.

"Sacrificed, taught classes with no extra compensation. We had staff who understood the plight."

But other changes at SUSLA, Belton says, are worth looking forward to.

"We've been branching out more into technical programs and career occupations, something that the business community has been challenging us to do."

That branch into technical programs is one that Bossier Parish Community College has embraced, despite the rocky economic ground.

"Most of the growth has been attributable to the programs we've created that really respond to the needs of employers and the demands of students in this regional economy," says BPCC Chancellor Dr. Jim Henderson.

Enrollment has doubled in the last five years - from 4,500 to 8,500, with yearly funding cut in half, down to $7.5 million.

But Henderson views the turbulent finances as a challenge, and cites collaboration among area schools as crucial for everyone in the community.

"Certainly, we have our own institutional concerns, our own institutional markets that we serve. But we think as long as we're able to work together in those areas where we overlap, then we're going to serve this community that much more effectively."

That collaboration includes LSU-Shreveport, which recently joined forces with BPCC, allowing students from both schools to share campuses equally.

It's just one move that LSUS Vice Chancellor, Dr. John Vassar says has helped keep enrollment afloat.

"We've gone from about five or six years ago getting $19 million from the state in support, down to about $7 or $8 million today, and so that's been the challenge for this campus."

Vassar says higher ed should never be just another casualty on a laundry list of items to cut because it's simply too valuable to the community.

"Anytime I take my kids to school and their teacher is a graduate from one of our regional institutions, anytime I go to the doctors or the dentist and I'm talking to folks who have come through those programs, you really see how critical and vital this is, not just for institutions sake, but for the sake of the community."

"For the most part, we have some very fragile institutions, economically fragile institutions."

Johnette Magner is the Executive Director for the Shreveport-Bossier Business Alliance for Higher Education (SBBA).

She says local institutions are crossing their fingers in hopes of funding stabilization, which - at the very least - would be an improvement over the last few years.

"A good indication that our optimism is not misplaced is that we didn't have mid-year cuts because we've had those mid-year cuts year after year in higher ed."

The Board of Regents serves as the state liaison to Louisiana's accredited, independent higher ed institutions.

They're responsible for setting statewide standards for the state's 34 public colleges.

Shreveport native, Bubba Raspberry, heads up the board, and says it's healthy for the regents to visit all areas of the state.

University Health will be hosting the meeting on Wednesday, January 22nd, beginning at 9 a.m. in the School of Medicine, located at 1501 Kings Highway in Shreveport.

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