Tuition control bills dead

Plans to wrestle tuition-setting authority away from lawmakers and put it in the hands of educators fizzled and died in the state House of Representatives this week, representing a major blow to Louisiana’s higher education community.

State Rep. Walt Leger III, the second highest ranking member of the House, summed it up this way: “We just don’t have the votes. It wasn’t going to pass.”

Leger, D-New Orleans, was one of two legislators to sponsor bills this year that would have given the state’s four higher education management boards control over tuition.

Currently, two-thirds of the state Legislature must sign off before colleges and universities can raise tuition. It is the toughest threshold in the country to overcome.

At the same time, Louisiana is near the bottom nationwide in funding colleges while keeping tuition at some of the lowest rates in the country.

LSU, for example, charges tuition at a rate 30 percent less than its peers in other states, according to the Board of Regents which sets Louisiana’s higher education policy.

The fight over tuition control has become especially pressing in recent years as Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have stripped nearly $650 million from Louisiana colleges and universities since 2008 in order to balance state budgets.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell has argued that declining state dollars coupled with rock-bottom 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.

Representatives from the LSU, Southern University and University of Louisiana systems all brushed aside concerns this week that tuition control bills would function as blank checks for them to saddle students with higher costs and more debt.

They’ve assured legislators throughout this year’s session that there is a point at which students are “priced out of the market,” — a point at which charging more tuition actually results in declining revenues as students choose to enroll in other institutions.

But those arguments didn’t sway legislators. The first measure, House Bill 87, sponsored by state Rep. Thomas Carmody fell 19 votes short of passage Tuesday.

On Wednesday, after House Bill 194 was pulled from consideration for lack of support, Purcell chalked it up “to the will of the Legislature.”

“The big thing is that we felt that we have a lot of high-cost programs, and we can’t grow them as fast without the ability to adjust for state budget cuts,” Purcell said.

Purcell admitted that getting the Legislature to give up its historically tight-grip on tuition was going to be a tough sell as some legislators worried that tuition would skyrocket without their oversight.

Regents Chairman. W. Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry, suggested the Legislature is content with keeping the status quo.

“The Legislature has spoken,” he said. “Obviously they enjoy this variety of power and the state’s got to live with it.”

But the failure of this year’s tuition bills doesn’t necessarily leave colleges and universities without any recourse.

Before the April start of the session, the Regents discussed whether an old state law is being interpreted correctly.

The issue is 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.

One year later, then-Attorney General Richard Ieyoub issued an opinion, which has been interpreted ever since, that counts tuition as a fee.

The Regents, in March, explored filing a lawsuit in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge asking the court to rule if tuition, is in fact, a fee, but opted to wait until after this year’s legislative session.

Regent Edward Markle, an attorney from New Orleans, has said the issue is worth pursuing at least to get some clarity on the matter.

“Tuition is something you pay for yourself voluntarily. It’s not a fee you pay the government; you pay it to educate yourself,” he said.