Higher ed leaders rethinking fight over tuition control

Almost every top higher education administrator in the state says it’s a good idea for the Louisiana Legislature to hand over its tight grip on tuition-setting authority and put that control in the hands of the schools.

With the realization sinking in that the idea is a political loser, some of the state’s leading academics said Wednesday that Louisiana’s higher education community should put that fight on hold and move in another direction.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said she would prefer for schools to have some control over tuition, but pursuing that strategy in the existing political climate “doesn’t seem like a wise use of our time.”

Woodley runs the largest university system in the state with nine schools and 90,000 college students.

The consensus of university system leaders during Wednesday’s Board of Regents meeting was that colleges and universities need stable funding from the state more than they need to control how much tuition they charge students.

Southern University System President Ronald Mason said the tuition battle “isn’t a fight worth having right now.”

He’s most concerned with the practice where legislators look at the amount of money college and university systems are going to generate through tuition increases, then remove a corresponding amount of money from the higher education budget.

“From my point of view, what’s most important is that we stabilize funding and be able to keep the tuition we charge,” Mason said.

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

Tuition hikes are allowed through the 2010 LA GRAD Act, which lets colleges raise tuition up to 10 percent each year if they meet certain performance goals including improved graduation and retention rates.

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 System President King Alexander calls tuition flexibility “the number one issue in higher education.”

His school, 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 roughly $700 million from Louisiana colleges and universities since 2008 in order to balance state budgets.

A popular opinion repeated by officials in higher education circles is that if the Legislature would just give up control over tuition, schools could find that balance where they could charge enough to recruit top-notch professors, pay faculty competitive wages and keep up with growing maintenance backlogs without pricing students out of the market.

L egislative attempts to put that control in the hands of the boards that oversee colleges and universities — instead of elected officials — fizzle and die nearly every year at the State Capitol.

“We do need financial relief. We do need a commitment to fund our institutions,” said Woodley, the UL System president . Funding “stability is our number one priority but we need to focus on what we can get done.”

Woodley, said energy would be better spent trying to improve policies already in place, for instance, a more sophisticated way to measure performance.

Schools that cater to low-income and so-called non-traditional students — older and oftentimes holding down full-time jobs — should not be judged using the same measures as a school that attracts high-achieving, middle-class students straight out of high school, she said.

“It should be a fair fight,” Woodley said adding that schools should be judged on “what they can achieve given the resources they have and their role and mission.”

The president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, Joe May, said he also favors taking tuition control away from the Legislature, but doesn’t feel that it’s politically plausible.

“It would be good to have tuition authority,” May said. “It would help us manage our overall operations, but if there’s no political support, let’s figure out what we can work on together.”