Public universities in the state of Louisiana are facing an outright budgeting crisis as the state government finds itself in a budget deficit exceeding $900 million.
Recently-elected governor John Bel Edwards has proposed a solution to the state's budget woes that includes $131 million in budget cuts to public Louisiana universities. While these sweeping reductions in spending can be avoided with the approval of new tax increases, the Republican state legislature seems wholly uncooperative towards Bel Edwards, a Democrat.
These budget cuts carry massive implications for the eligibility of student athletes at the affected institutions.
The most pressing threat is the loss of accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The association has already sent a letter to the University of Louisiana System warning them of potential accreditation removal.
Per a copy of the letter received by The Daily Advertiser, "If the institutions are unable to demonstrate continued financial stability or continue to enroll students, the Board of SACSCOC would have to consider a public sanction of the institutions or a withdrawal of their accreditation. Public sanctions have a chilling effect on the enrollment of potential students and withdrawal of accreditation results in the loss of federal financial aid."
It's likely that any Louisiana universities suffering from severe budget cuts would be placed on public sanction at first but with further budget cuts on the way in 2017, that sanction could evolve into a full rescinding of accreditation.
Per NCAA bylaw 126.96.36.199, "If an active member's accreditation is removed by its regional accrediting agency, it shall immediately forfeit its membership in the Association".
Outside of the severe risk of accreditation loss, student athletes may lose eligibility on a case-by-case basis as their majors are defunded, their classes are canceled, and their professors are laid off. This would lead to massive transfers on a scale we haven't seen since UAB temporarily shut down their football program.
The large scale loss of eligibility would cripple the universities' Academic Progress Rates, rendering the affected universities unable to participate in postseason play as well as potentially placing the universities on probation with the NCAA itself.
All of these risks are identified in the University of Louisana System's budget reduction notification.
You can find the full list at the link above but here are a few items that could severely impact each institution from an athletics standpoint:
- Freeze hiring on vacant classified and unclassified positions
- Loss of instructional classes and potential loss of accreditation
- Loss of degree programs
- Reduce scholarships/waivers by freezing student retention grant support
- Reduce the number of courses taught for the spring and summer semester
- Reduce transfers to athletics
While the proposed budget cuts will wreak havoc on all public universities in the state of Louisiana, it's likely that the state's FCS programs in the Southland Conference will suffer the biggest shock, creating a legitimate threat to the entire conference's very existence.
Four of the conference's 11 football members are University of Louisiana System schools (McNeese State, Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana, Nicholls State) and are subject to 32% cuts to their operating budgets. While established FBS programs such as LSU, Lousiana Tech, and ULL have the existing infrastructure and alumni support to sustain budget cuts and outbound transfers, the aforementioned FCS programs are already struggling to maintain financial support for their athletics programs today.
Figures from USA Today show the University of New Orleans (non-football member), Nicholls State, McNeese State, and Southeastern Lousiana as four out of the conference's bottom five in athletics budgets. In the long term, it's hard to imagine how these institutions can continue to compete at the Division I level in the state's current financial and political landscape. It's a very real possibility to suggest some of these programs may be forced to shut their doors.
In the short term, the conference faces a potential scheduling nightmare. If even just one of these universities is forced to temporarily close in the fall semester (Nicholls State is tentatively slated to run this risk this spring) it could lead to forfeitures on the field for the university as well as extra open dates for the program's opponents, not to mention significant lost revenue for the conference and its members.
Looking into the crystal ball of conference realignment, the Southland doesn't have many enticing options left to replace the Louisana members if any were to drop football or athletics as a whole. The Southland already essentially exhausted its options after recently adding Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist, and Incarnate Word, all of which were stretches to compete at the Division I level in the first place.
With the Louisiana education system very much in peril, the future of the Southland Conference faces a very real risk. As the arms race in college athletics and education spending as a whole continues to rage on, casualties will begin to pile up as the student loan equity bubble begins to burst. As we wait to see how the political nightmare in Louisiana plays out, fans of non-Power 5 athletics programs should take this as a cautionary tale of the cost of doing business in college athletics today.