House speaker seeks new ideas for college funding

BATON ROUGE (AP) — House Speaker Chuck Kleckley urged higher education leaders Monday to offer lawmakers new ideas for financing Louisiana’s public college campuses after six years of budget cuts.

Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said lawmakers need innovative ideas and vision from officials with the four university systems to stop the bleeding on campuses and to stabilize funding for the schools.

“I’m calling for the invention of new solutions from the very institutions that (are) teaching innovation in the classrooms,” he told the Press Club of Baton Rouge. “Without stable and predictable funding, our universities and our state will simply not be prepared to face the future realities of the job market.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers have stripped $690 million in state funding from higher education since 2008, a 48 percent reduction, according to data from the Board of Regents.

Tuition increases on students have offset only about two-thirds of the losses.

“After several years of disinvesting in higher ed, we have fallen behind,” Kleckley said.

Campuses have closed the remaining gap by cutting classes, shrinking faculty and staff, eliminating programs and making other changes.

Kleckley said his youngest daughter, a civil engineering student at McNeese State University, has stayed in college longer than four years because she’s had to wait to get the classes.

The House speaker didn’t offer recommendations for how to improve the financial situation for campuses, and it’s unclear what different suggestions the higher education community could make after several years of offering ideas and seeing them rejected by the Legislature.

Louisiana has empaneled two study commissions about higher education since 2009, one with experts from other states and another packed with lawmakers, higher education officials and business leaders. They made dozens of financing suggestions, many of which haven’t received the backing of lawmakers.

The Board of Regents — which governs higher education in the state — pushed a plan in the most recent legislative session that would have let the campuses raise tuition according to a plan that included different tuition and fee schedules for high-cost academic programs and sought to keep schools closer in line with rates charged at other colleges in the South.

Lawmakers shelved the Regents bill in the House for lack of support.

Kleckley said there’s not been overwhelming support from university system leaders about previous proposals. “There was not that unified voice,” he said.

Louisiana is the only state in the nation that requires a two-thirds vote of lawmakers to raise charges on students. Kleckley said he’d support removing that requirement, if higher education officials advanced a clear vision tied to performance measures and didn’t surpass Southern regional averages.

Lawmakers have worried about the impact on the state’s free college tuition program called TOPS, because any increase in tuition raises the state’s price tag for TOPS.

Other concerns have been raised about continuing to shift costs to students. Some legislators also have said they see no net benefit in raising tuition rates if Jindal and lawmakers are going to then shrink state financing in return.

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