Regents: Legislature should listen to recommendations

The Legislature can help Louisiana’s colleges and universities move forward by giving schools the ability to set their own tuition, a state task force said. The problem is lawmakers won’t give up that authority.

The Louisiana Board of Regents, the state’s higher education policy board, discussed the dilemma Thursday. The topic came up as some Regents members defended the work of the state’s Tuition Task Force.

The Tuition Task Force is a group of college and high school students, business leaders and education experts created by the Legislature last year to find ways to make college more affordable. Its final report was made public this week.

The task force has been criticized for coming up with the same ideas the Legislature has rejected in the past.

Last month, state Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, said he was discouraged with the direction the task force was going.

He said he couldn’t see the Legislature support the same ideas it’s already dismissed, multiple times in some cases.

The Tuition Task Force recommendations echo the ideas the so-called Tucker Commission came up with fours years ago and the suggestions made by the Governance Commission two years ago.

The solutions center around giving college leaders the flexibility to set their own tuition and adjust prices for certain programs depending on how much it costs to offer them.

On Thursday, the message from two Regents members was clear: If the Legislature keeps getting the same answers to the questions asked, maybe lawmakers should listen.

Richard Lipsey, of Baton Rouge, was the only member of the Regents on the task force. He said he was disappointed to see Ortego criticize the recommendations.

“Our (colleges and universities) don’t have any authority. The difficulty is that if you don’t give them authority, they cannot operate a budget, especially without knowing where the funds are coming from,” Lipsey said. “I don’t think we can do anything new, as the representative suggested, until we get the basic fundamentals down.”

Louisiana is the only state in the nation that requires two-thirds of the Legislature to agree before a tuition hike can take place.

Additionally, state leaders have cut roughly $700 million from Louisiana higher education institutions since 2008.

As many states have begun to ramp up higher education funding as the recession fades, Louisiana still hasn’t reversed the trend.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities says Louisiana’s nearly 18 percent slashing of higher education funding this fiscal year is the most severe cut in the nation.

Higher education leaders have said the budget cuts have chased away top-flight faculty and made it harder to recruit young talent.

They say unstable funding damages the reputations of Louisiana schools nationwide and hampers their ability to produce workforce-ready students.

Regent Bill Fenstermaker, of Lafayette, said the state is fast approaching the point where it won’t make sense for parents to send their kids to Louisiana schools. If “the previous task forces came up with the same conclusions, that’s just the way it is,” Fenstermaker said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and some legislators say the sky isn’t falling. They often point out that graduation and retention rates are on the rise.

But still, the Tuition Task Force recommended that the management boards that oversee Louisiana’s four public college systems be granted the authority to set tuition at their individual institutions.

The task force also recommended:

Giving management boards the power to charge more for high-cost programs. The cost to offer an engineering course is more than the cost of a history class.

Giving management boards authority to charge students on a per-credit basis. Currently, schools are only allowed to charge students for the first 12 credits taken in a semester.

The task force also recommended taking some action to control the runaway costs of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. TOPS pays tuition and some fees for students who meet and maintain certain academic requirements.

The task force further recommended strengthening the state’s Go Grant scholarship program for low-income students.

Lipsey, the Regents member who served on the task force, said the Legislature shouldn’t just assume that giving college leaders control over tuition automatically means college prices will skyrocket.

“We have great higher ed leaders in this state. Our leaders are not going to raise tuition, unless they understand that doing that is going to be successful,” Lipsey said. “We understand the difficulty is the state budget and we are not in a fight with the governor’s office or the Legislature. We understand there are only ‘X’ amount of dollars in the budget. But we need to invest in our students. We need more qualified graduates.”