Legislators study higher ed tuition

One by one, state legislators, higher education administrators and government watchers took a turn Thursday at a microphone inside downtown Baton Rouge’s Claiborne Building to talk about how colleges and universities can perform better while also remaining affordable for students.

It was the first of three meetings of the state’s Tuition Task Force, a panel set up by the Legislature earlier this year to come up with college pricing recommendations.

Legislators are worried that as state funds to colleges and universities are drying up, tuition is steadily creeping higher, making it more difficult for students to afford a postsecondary education.

Higher education leaders are concerned the Legislature refuses to give them authority to set their own tuition rates, essentially denying them the ability to manage their operations as they see fit.

The Task Force is the brainchild of state Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro.

On Thursday, the first-term legislator said he wanted to set up a task force to address “the outrageous tuition increases” Louisiana schools have put in place over the last several years.

Just a few years back, the state’s higher education institutions got 70 percent of their funding from the state, with students and families picking up the remaining 30 percent.

The ratio flipped during the economic downturn with schools now relying on tuition revenue to make up roughly 70 percent of their budgets.

“I realized the need to start driving the conversation about this,” Ortego said. “At what point do these universities become private universities that are being strapped down by public bureaucracy?”

During Thursday’s discussions, it appeared that Ortego and the higher education people in the room weren’t talking about the same things.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell spent his time at the microphone talking about the need for schools to have tuition flexibility.

Flexibility as in 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.

Students are only charged for the first 12 credit hours they take in a semester.

If schools were to get paid per credit hour, they could better staff courses and they could afford to offer more classes per semester, Purcell said.

The resulting efficiency could result in students being able to shave off as much as a year in class time on their way to completing a degree, he said.

Those ideas were all soundly defeated at the state Legislature earlier this year.

Despite some of the varied messages being thrown around Thursday, Ortego said he’s spoken to legislative leadership and people inside Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, and he’s confident that legislators will be more open to making substantive changes to how colleges and universities are financed next year when lawmakers meet up at the State Capitol.

“At first, I was less hopeful that this thing was going to work out,” Ortego said. “But now, I see that our leadership and the administration, not necessarily the governor, but people inside the administration are interested. I’m hopeful that something will come out of this.”