Tuition bills poised for votes

Higher education leaders around the state will have their eyes on the State Capitol this week as legislators are set to debate two bills that would take tuition-setting control away from the Legislature and give it to the boards that manage Louisiana’s public colleges and universities.

Should either House Bill 194 or House Bill 87 become law, it would reverse the nearly two-decade vice grip legislators have had on college tuition.

Louisiana is the only state in the country that requires two-thirds of the Legislature to approve a tuition or fee increase.

Outside of reaching that threshold, tuition hikes are only allowed through the 2010 LA Grad Act that lets colleges raise tuition up to 10 percent each year provided they meet certain performance goals including graduation and retention rates.

Higher education leaders have said that without being granted greater control over tuition, their hands have all but been tied in a state that has reduced funding for colleges and universities nearly $650 million since 2008.

Southern University System President Ronald Mason said institutions should be granted increased flexibility to manage their operations in the most efficient ways.

“The state is going to a different funding model,” Mason said. “It’s now tuition-driven; it’s a market-based model. We need to be able to respond to the market. We need the flexibility to be able run the business. We need to give our boards the ability to manage.”

Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System, said having control over tuition could stem a recent trend where the state’s most-talented researchers and professors leave Louisiana in search of markets with more stable sources of funding.

Tuition control, Woodley said, “is not about increasing salaries. It’s about being able to retain our high-level programs. We need enough operating revenue to keep our faculty and also to grow our programs.”

Both Mason and Woodley said Monday that the bills have been misconstrued as a way for institutions simply to raise tuition. Both argued that is unlikely to happen as management boards recognize that there is a point where tuition increases can actually decrease revenue as students are “priced out” and choose to enroll elsewhere.

While taking tuition-setting control away from legislators is a popular idea on Louisiana’s campuses, it remains to be seen whether the Legislature is willing to give up its historically stingy grip on the issue.

LSU System President William Jenkins said he expects votes Tuesday and Wednesday are going be tough.

“This would make life much easier for us, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy to accomplish,” Jenkins said. “It’s going to be a difficult vote for them to yield authority.”

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

HB194, by state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, would give Louisiana’s four public college and university system boards the authority to raise the tuition up to the Southern regional average.

The bill would also require that at least 10 percent of the revenue from tuition increases would be set aside to help students with financial needs.