NEW ORLEANS—If federal policymakers are serious about giving all students access to affordable higher education, they should leverage some of the billions of dollars in existing federal funding to make states stop cutting their budgets for public universities and colleges.

At the current rate of disinvestment, “We won’t have state universities in 50 years,” said F. King Alexander, president and chancellor of Louisiana State University.

And public universities themselves have to do a better job persuading the public that supporting higher education is essential to economic development.

That was the dual message to top administrators from, and lobbyists who represent, public universities and community colleges, which are pushing to reverse years of funding declines that have resulted in increases in tuition and reductions in staffing and programs.

“We’re just trying to get the federal government to realize that this great diversity is going to be over, because we won’t have state universities in 50 years” at the current rate of disinvestment, said F. King Alexander, president and chancellor of Louisiana State University.

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Alexander urged that a portion of the nearly $180 billion a year in federal financial aid be leveraged to push states to restore their funding for public higher education as a condition of getting or continuing to receive the money.

He equated this to the stipulation that came with federal stimulus grants given to the states at the onset of the great recession obliging them to generally maintain their higher-education budgets without significantly increasing tuition.

“It’s time for us to get people to wake up,” Alexander said. “If they really want affordable higher education, the best thing they can do is use some of that [billions in federal financial aid] to force the states to put some money into higher education.”

Forty-eight of the 50 states are allocating a collective average of 23 percent less on public higher education than they did before the start of the recession, according to the independent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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“At this rate, states will stop supporting higher education at all,” Alexander said.

Those 48 include Alexander’s home state, Louisiana, host to a strategy conference he addressed that brought together four groups representing public higher-education institutions: the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Association of Community Colleges, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

The event came on the eve of a White House summit meant to focus attention on improving college graduation rates. It’s a follow-up to a White House summit in January that urged universities to improve access for low-income students.

Louisiana has cut higher-education funding in six of the last seven years, by a total of $459 million, or 28 percent, according to the Center for American Progress. But it reversed that trend this year when universities made the case that producing more graduates was essential to the state’s economy.

“Economic development was the buzzword” in getting lawmakers to begin to stop the bleeding and increase the higher-education budget by 6 percent, or $140 million, Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System, told the conference.

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That’s an argument public universities and colleges have been making in states that have increased higher-education funding. But those in several of the poorest states have not, and they continue to cut their higher-education spending.

“What higher education has not been as successful as we should have been over the last few years had been in connecting” the need for producing educated graduates with their impact on economic health, said Woodley. “We cannot have economic prosperity if we continue to be in a freefall and get a cut every year, sometimes twice a year.”

Of the increase in spending in Louisiana, $40 million is to increase the supply of engineers, computer scientists, accountants, and other workers in high demand.

“In higher education we need to be more sensitive and responsive to the concerns that happen in our economy and in our workforce,” Woodley said. “In general, higher education does a really poor job of articulating our value proposition.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.