Tuition study yields same rejected ideas
BATON ROUGE(AP) — The recommendations of the latest task force to study college tuition issues read like the eternal wish list of higher education leaders around Louisiana.
Suggestions include less legislative meddling in setting tuition rates, new funding for needs-based college aid and more restrictions on the state’s free tuition program called TOPS to rein in its costs.
Lawmakers have killed the ideas again and again, sometimes without even bothering to take a vote.
But study panels repeatedly make the suggestions, saying those ideas represent the best path forward to improve higher education in a state in desperate need of more skills training certificates and college degrees.
Though lawmakers often haven’t listened to the groups they create to study higher education funding, they repeat the exercise year after year.
Part of the problem is the issues are thorny.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers would have to acknowledge that cutting nearly $700 million in state funding from higher education since 2008 — 48 percent of state financing for colleges — has had real consequences in the classroom.
They’d have to make hard decisions on what to do about the mushrooming costs of the politically-sacred TOPS (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students) program.
And higher education leaders would have to organize in a united front to push concepts, rather than fighting for their individual campuses.
Instead, since lawmakers don’t like the suggestions they’ve received and can’t agree on any of their own ideas, they approve new study requests.
Meanwhile, higher education officials hope they’ll eventually strike the right mix of changed circumstances, different leadership or new pressure to help coax their recommendations on tuition policy and TOPS to passage.
But as the latest round of recycled suggestions won approval from the Tuition Task Force, Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell didn’t seem to think something had so fundamentally shifted that lawmakers will back proposals they’ve previously killed.
“It may not necessarily result in legislation this (session), but I do believe it puts this idea on their radar for future consideration,” Purcell said.
The Tuition Task Force is a study group of higher education leaders and students assembled by the House to look at strategies for increasing college access and affordability and to look at new ways to generate revenue for campuses.
It was the third study commission created by lawmakers to look at higher education financing issues since 2009. Few of its ideas were new.
Each panel runs into the same two problems:
—The TOPS program, which costs $220 million this year, grows each time tuition increases. If lawmakers give the college management boards the ability to raise tuition and fees without legislative approval, the state’s price tag for TOPS could grow astronomically, unless lawmakers agree to undo that link.
—As lawmakers have approved college tuition increases, the Jindal administration has recommended taking out similar amounts of state financing support for the schools, and lawmakers have agreed. That shifts new costs to students and families, but hasn’t necessarily given campuses more money.
The Tuition Task Force suggested that TOPS awards should be a flat amount not tied to the price of tuition and that lawmakers should consider raising the education standards required for high school students to receive a TOPS award.
The group also recommended that more money be directed to the state’s need-based aid program for college students, that lawmakers give the authority to raise tuition rates to the university system management boards and that campuses be allowed to charge different tuition rates for high-cost academic programs.
Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro, who sponsored the legislation creating the task force, said he had hoped for new, innovative ideas — and filled half the panel with high school and college students with that goal in mind.
He said some suggestions from the task force seem to take a new approach or look at tuition policy from a new angle.
“Other things, it’s like, ‘Why are we even having this discussion again?’” he said.
Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.