Two panels, two bills on tuition

Two state House committees on Tuesday took initial steps toward taking tuition-raising authority away from the Legislature and giving that responsibility to the management boards that oversee Louisiana’s public colleges and universities.

Should either House Bill 194 or House Bill 87 pass, it would represent a significant shift in a state Legislature that has been historically stingy about giving up control over tuition.

Louisiana is the only state in the nation that requires two-thirds legislative approval on tuition and fee increases. Tuition hikes are only allowed through the 2010 LA GRAD Act law that lets colleges raise tuition up to 10 percent each year should they meet certain performance goals including improved graduation and retention rates.

HB87, sponsored by state Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, takes the form of a constitutional amendment. The bill would exempt tuition from Louisiana’s requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature must sign-off before a public agency can increase a fee.

HB87 made it out of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee without opposition.

HB194, by state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, would give the LSU, University of Louisiana, Southern University and Louisiana Community and Technical College boards the authority to raise tuition up to the southern regional average.

Under the bill, at least 10 percent of the revenue from tuition increases would be set aside to help students with financial needs.

The legislation would also allow institutions to charge tuition per credit hour. Currently, students are only charged for the first 12 credit hours they take in a semester.

The proposal was approved by the House Education Committee 13-4.

Leger called his bill necessary because the “way we are funding higher education is not working.” Tuition, he added, should be left up to the “experts in higher education.”

Public colleges and universities generally have two main funding sources — money from the state, and tuition from students. As recently as 2008, state dollars made up roughly 60 percent of higher education budgets. Five years later, tuition dollars make up roughly 60 percent of postsecondary education budgets.

That swap in how schools are funded has coincided with a nearly $650 million decrease in state dollars to colleges and universities. Institutions have raised tuition by roughly $331 million over the same time period to offset some of those cuts.

“It’s an important move in a new direction for higher education in this state,” Leger said about his bill. “We haven’t given the higher eduction management boards a way to properly budget to produce a knowledge-based economy. This bill doesn’t seek to raise tuition, it seeks to put us in line with other states.”

But the idea of moving closer to how other states handle tuition didn’t immediately sway some legislators and other higher education watchers who argued that what Louisiana needs is better-performing schools and increased accountability for institutions that fail to improve.

State Reps. Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans, and John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, both argued that giving management boards free rein to raise tuition wouldn’t necessarily help students or the schools. They argued that Gov. Bobby Jindal has nullified past tuition increases authorized through the GRAD Act by reducing state general fund dollars earmarked for colleges and universities by the same amount.

Edwards further argued that schools will be forced to raise tuition as state general fund dollars to higher education decline.

Besides the ability to budget and plan more effectively, state Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said, HB194 will actually save students money in the long run by shortening their “time to graduation.”

Colleges and universities currently are having trouble offering an appropriate number of classes, and in the right sequence for students to quickly progress through their postsecondary careers, he said.

“We are really pleased with this bill,” Purcell said.

Both HB87 and HB194 will head to the full House for further consideration.