Official: Don’t cap La. tuition

Louisiana’s colleges and universities should have the power to charge more for high-cost, high-demand programs, State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said Wednesday.

Louisiana’s schools won’t be successful without that authority, he warned the Louisiana Board of Regents, the state panel that sets higher education policy. No regents spoke in opposition to Purcell’s position, but it is unclear whether they have the influence to sway the Louisiana Legislature on this particular issue.

Louisiana is the only state in the country in which the Legislature has total control over tuition.

Louisiana also is next to the bottom nationwide in funding two-year schools and last in funding four-year schools. At the same time, Louisiana keeps tuition at some of the lowest rates in the nation.

LSU, for example, charges tuition at a rate 30 percent less than its peers in other states, Purcell said.

Declining state dollars coupled with rock-bottom tuition has not been good for the state and continually makes it tougher for Louisiana schools to produce enough highly qualified graduates to fill workforce demands, he said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have stripped more than $425 million in funding from colleges and universities since 2008 in order to balance state budgets. In roughly the same time period, college administrators have seen their share of state dollars used to fund four-year schools cut in half — from 68 percent to 34 percent. Dr. Albert Sam, a regents board member from Baton Rouge, said those numbers tell the true story of the state’s apathy toward higher education.

“You can’t look at the data and say our state values higher education,” Sam said. “It’s become increasingly obvious that we don’t.”

Purcell said the numbers put Louisiana schools at an extreme competitive disadvantage nationwide. “For us to be successful, we need the ability to increase tuition,” specifically among the programs that cost more to offer, he said.

It’s a refrain that higher education leaders have been repeating for some time.

Interim University of Louisiana System President Tom Layzell in November asked the Legislature for the flexibility to set tuition based on program costs and the popularity of certain degrees among students.

Purcell, on Wednesday, explained that it costs schools $1,525 in staffing and supplies to offer students one doctoral-level credit in physics, while the state collects only $708 in revenue.

In the past, schools had more money to spend on high-cost programs such as physics and pharmacy that needed lower student-to-faculty-ratios.

In recent years, the model has flipped, he said, as schools have to offer more low-cost programs in order to afford a few high-cost programs.

In his presentation to the regents, Purcell also suggested that schools and their students would benefit should institutions be given authority to charge students on a per-credit basis.

Tuition is currently capped at 12 credit hours.

If schools were to get paid per credit hour, they could better staff courses and they could afford to offer more classes per semester, Purcell said. The resulting efficiency could result in students being able to shave off as much as a year in class time on their way to completing a degree, he said.

“One piece of legislation could make a huge difference,” he said.

It is unclear how willing Jindal would be to push such legislation. The Governor’s Office did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

In the meantime, Purcell said Louisiana’s colleges have done their part in becoming more nimble.

Schools have reduced their administrative staff by 24 percent; faculty by nearly 5 percent; and skilled maintenance workers by 26 percent, Purcell said.

Louisiana’s institutions have also increased enrollment by 10 percent since 2008, are utilizing larger class sizes and relying more on adjunct faculty as cost-savings measures, he said.

Even while advocating for more tuition authority, Purcell has acknowledged it might be a tough sell for the Legislature to concede that much power. In the past, he’s said he would still support having the Legislature sign off on tuition increases before hikes could take effect.