Tuition strategy offered

The idea of giving Louisiana’s public colleges and universities more control over tuition got a mostly lukewarm response from state legislators Tuesday at the State Capitol.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell laid out a number of initiatives he said could get Louisiana’s higher education system out of the doldrums as he testified before the Joint Legislative Committee on Education.

But with many of Purcell’s proposals needing overwhelming support from both the Louisiana House and state Senate to pass, state Rep. Thomas Carmody said he agreed with some of the plans but described them as unlikely without a large-scale change of heart from the Legislature and support from Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“If we have to have a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, we can’t do any of this,” Carmody, R-Shreveport, said. “We’d need the political will and the administration behind it.”

Legislators will return to Baton Rouge for the start of the legislative session April 8.

After the meeting, Purcell said he wasn’t discouraged.

“I still think it’s early,” Purcell said. “In the end, we have to find a solution ... but our solutions are getting limited.”

Purcell was referring to five straight years of state budget cuts to higher education that the state Board of Regents has tallied at more than $625 million.

While schools have raised tuition roughly $331 million and cut staff by more than 6 percent to offset some of the missing revenue, Purcell said the colleges and universities are in “dire straits.”

Select schools in some of the fastest-growing parts of the state — Baton Rouge, Hammond and Lake Charles — have seen their budgets cut between 43 and 52 percent since 2008, he said.

LSU in Baton Rouge is at the low end of that range, having seen a 43 percent decline totaling more than $102 million in the past five years, he said.

“If our intent is to build a flagship school rated much higher than it is now, this isn’t the appropriate approach,” Purcell said.

Among the several paths forward, he said, schools need to seek further efficiencies in staffing, direct their research toward the needs of businesses and design coursework to meet the needs of industry.

The Legislature could help by granting schools authority to “become more market driven,” Purcell said.

Louisiana is the only state where the Legislature controls tuition.

Purcell’s plans include giving schools the ability to adjust tuition up to the Southern regional average; allow institutions to charge more for high-cost, high demand programs; and give them the power to charge per credit hour. Currently, students are only charged for the first 12 credit hours they take in a semester.

But giving colleges increased control over tuition appeared to be a nonstarter with many of the legislators who attended the committee meeting.

Sate Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, said a higher priority for him would be to merge some of the state’s 14 four-year schools. Without that, Richard said he “won’t be able to support any tuition increases.”

State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans, seized on a recurring theme of higher education administrators wanting to raise tuition to roughly the same as their peers in the south.

“Getting to that average is probably not attainable,” Henry said. “But we can look at how much it costs to run an institution to the best of our ability.”

Henry said it’s hard for him to sell the people in his district on the need for more money based on what other states do.

“People ask me ‘Why do we care what Tennessee does? If we can turn on the lights for less, let’s turn them on for
less,’ ” Henry said.

Purcell countered that Louisiana schools can “survive” at their current levels but will need additional revenue in order to “thrive.”

Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, downplayed Purcell’s calls for more tuition authority saying he was more concerned about performance.

“Not to say that funding is not critical, but we want more of the discussion to be about performance,” Appel said. “I don’t believe we’re setting the world on fire in terms of achievement.”

After the meeting, Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin emailed reporters what he called a “fact sheet” that included what he called “key points,” such as increased graduation rates and $700 million in higher education infrastructure spending, during the Jindal administration. No one in the Jindal administration testified before the committee.