Inside Report: Tuition backup plan abandoned

By Koran Addo

Capitol news bureau

Before this most recent legislative session got began, it looked like the men and women who control Louisiana’s public colleges and universities were going to assert themselves and try to finally wrestle tuition-setting authority away from the Legislature and put it in the hands of the people who actually oversee higher education in the state.

It doesn’t seem that way anymore.

Louisiana’s higher education community has long argued that it should have the flexibility to set its own tuition and, therefore, the ability to control its own budgets.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell argued that declining state dollars coupled with low tuition makes it difficult for Louisiana schools to produce enough highly qualified graduates to fill workforce demands.

College and university administrators say tuition-setting authority gives them the ability to plan and manage their campuses.

They say tuition-setting authority is especially important in the current economic climate where Gov. Bobby Jindal and state legislators have cut state funding to schools by an estimated 80 percent over a five-year period.

The problem is that individual schools can’t raise tuition, only the Legislature can. And it requires two-thirds of them to agree on a tuition hike before it can happen.

The two-thirds requirement is the toughest threshold to overcome in the country. But despite what many people believe, it’s not written into state law.

The issue comes down to whether tuition is considered a fee.

A 1995 state constitutional provision, approved by voters, requires a two-thirds vote by the Legislature before a fee charged by a public agency can be increased. A year later, then-Attorney General Richard Ieyoub issued an opinion, which has been interpreted ever since, that includes tuition as a fee.

In March, the state’s top higher education panel, the Board of Regents, decided it should revisit the issue. Regents agreed that with the backing of the state’s four college systems, they would ask the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge to rule whether tuition is, in fact, a fee.

The argument was that you don’t have the choice whether to pay a fee. It’s something you are compelled to pay, while tuition is something you pay voluntarily.

The Regents’ plan was to hold off on the court challenge until the Legislature had a chance to vote on two bills that would turn over tuition control authority to the LSU, Southern University, University of Louisiana, and community and technical college systems.

Higher education administrators made a point to make the rounds at the State Capitol this year letting legislators know that giving up their vice-grip on tuition wouldn’t automatically mean schools would jack up their prices.

They had the backing of the government lobbying group Council for a Better Louisiana and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

But it wasn’t enough. The first tuition bill fell 19 votes short of passing in the state House of Representatives, while the other bill was pulled from consideration for lack of support.

The death of tuition control wasn’t entirely unexpected. Everyone knew it was going to be a tough sell to get legislators to give up some of their power. The real issue is why has the backup plan been abandoned. A quick polling of higher education leadership since the end of the session indicates it becomes clear that taking the issue to court to be settled once and for all isn’t on anyone’s immediate to-do list.

For an issue that’s been advertised as vitally important to the health of our public institutions, it’s strange that no one is pursuing this.

Koran Addo covers higher education for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is kaddo@theadvocate.com.