Speaker Kleckley: Solutions must be found for higher-ed

For House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, the financial struggle of Louisiana’s public colleges and universities is personal.

Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said Monday that his youngest daughter is navigating a six-year course to college graduation because state budget cutbacks are preventing McNeese State University from offering the classes she needs.

He did not offer the Press Club of Baton Rouge any ideas for creating more financial stability on campuses. Instead, he called for the state’s higher education leaders to come to a consensus on a solution.

“I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know what the rabbit in the hat is,” Kleckley said.

Higher education leaders sat down in the past to discuss needed changes and converged behind a legislative package earlier this year. Few of their recommendations resonated with legislators, including wider tuition-setting authority.

However, college officials expressed willingness Monday to once again take up the baton.

“We welcome the conversation about higher education funding and priorities,” LSU System President F. King Alexander said. “We agree higher education is really an investment in the economy of Louisiana.”

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said the state’s higher education community “needs to be honest” with itself and figure out what it will take to turn things around. “We need to close that gap between what Louisiana will be and what Louisiana could be,” Woodley said. “We need a business plan. We need to figure out how much money it will take to achieve what we want to achieve.”

As in some other states, funding for higher education did a flip flop over the past several years.

Public colleges and universities used to primarily rely on the state’s general fund for paying the bills. Now institutions rely heavily on tuition and fees because the amount of money transferred from the general fund to campuses has dwindled.

The switch, which coincides with a downturn in the state’s finances, sparked concerns about the continued quality of higher education in Louisiana.

The Jindal administration countered Monday that the governor backed tuition increase flexibility and construction dollars for campuses.

In recent years, Louisiana’s college and university leaders have formed a number of groups to study how the state’s higher education system can improve only to see many of their recommendations ignored by the governor and the Legislature.

The nine-member Postsecondary Education Review Commission studied in 2010 how the state could increase community and technical college enrollments, eliminate academic duplications and appropriately fund LSU and other research universities enough to compete nationally.

To date, many of the group’s recommendations have fallen by the wayside with the exception of an idea to tie tuition-raising authority to school performance.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature approved that idea, which later became the LA GRAD ACT, allowing schools to raise tuition by up to 10 percent each year provided they reached certain benchmarks related to graduation and retention rates.

But even the GRAD Act hasn’t worked as initially intended. The bill was supposed to give colleges and universities a funding boost.

Instead, the Legislature started deducting the same amount of the GRAD ACT tuition increases from the amount of money the state gives to schools, essentially making the tuition increases a wash.

In 2011, the Legislature created the 18-member Governance Commission to debate what widespread changes could be made to the state’s higher education system.

The group came up with 21 recommendations, including decoupling TOPS scholarships from student tuition partly so the merit-based awards can be capped at set values.

None of the suggestions made it very far at the State Capitol.

Earlier this year, there was a united front in a legislative package that would have given schools more control over setting tuition, authority to charge more for more expensive programs and the ability to charge students on a per-credit basis.

All of those suggestions died swiftly during this year’s legislative session.