Task Force issues higher ed suggestions

A task force created to find ways to make it easier for students to attend college may have lost the support of the very legislator who formed the group.

Members of the state’s Tuition Task Force, on Wednesday, unveiled many of the recommendations they plan to pitch to the Legislature early next year, spelling out their ideas to increase access to college.

The problem is that many of the proposed solutions are rehashed versions of ideas the state Legislature has rejected in the past. And many of the recommendations the group discussed at length don’t directly address the issue of college accessibility.

Instead, the 23-member group made up of high school and college students, academic leaders and businessmen from around the state, focused on different ways colleges and universities could raise more money, mainly through tuition hikes.

The Task Force is the brainchild of state Rep. Stephen Ortego. When reached for comment Wednesday, the Democrat from Carencro said he had not yet seen the group’s draft report. He was, however, less than enthusiastic about some of the recommendations that have been made public so far.

“I know it’s not a final report, but if they’re making recommendations that failed in the past, it will be hard to pass them in the future with this particular Legislature,” Ortego said. “I was hoping for some innovative suggestions from a group of people I consider experts.”

Both legislators and higher education leaders are looking for answers after a weak economy prompted Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers to strip the state’s public colleges and universities of roughly $700 million in funding over the past five years. Schools have replaced about half of the money they’ve lost by raising tuition — a tactic that some education observers say amounts to a tax increase.

Ortego said he envisioned the task force coming up with ways to keep colleges and universities performing at pre-recession levels or better, without shifting the burden of funding onto students. Rising tuition almost always corresponds with declining enrollment.

Among the recommendations the task force has come up with includes allowing institutions to charge more for high-cost and high-demand programs. The price tag to offer a course in civil engineering is much higher than the cost to offer a basic English class, but schools aren’t currently allowed to vary their pricing.

The task force also suggested that institutions be allowed to charge students on a per-credit-hour basis. Tuition is currently capped at 12-credit hours, meaning schools don’t collect revenue on any courses students take beyond the first 12 credits in any given semester.

A popular suggestion in the higher education community is giving the management boards that oversee Louisiana’s four college systems the authority to set tuition at their individual institutions. Louisiana is the only state in the country in which the Legislature has total control over tuition.

Ortego said he wouldn’t support taking tuition control out of the Legislature’s hands for fear that management boards would increase costs too rapidly.

Another recommendation Ortego said he won’t support is a recommendation to cap the state’s college scholarship program known as TOPS. State budget watchers have consistently warned that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students will one day become unsustainable as tuition keeps rising and more and more money from the state’s general fund has to be set aside for all of the students who earn TOPS awards.

But Ortego, Jindal and a good number of legislators have been blunt in saying they won’t support any bill limiting TOPS.

“Capping TOPS is a bad idea,” Ortego said, calling it an investment in students.

Task Force members and others have suggested the state could save money and provide an incentive for students to stay in school by establishing a lower TOPS amount for incoming freshman and increasing the award amount for each year a student stays in school.

The task force recommended that savings from that idea could then be funneled into the state’s GO Grant college scholarship program for low-income students.

“The most important thing to come out of this is that we are having discussions that need to be had,” Ortego said. “Our biggest problem is shifting the burden onto our students. I see it as a tax increase on young people trying to get themselves educated. This conversation really needs to be had.”

The task force is expected to submit its final recommendations to the Legislature on Jan. 9.