The presidents of Louisiana’s four public college systems said Monday they would support efforts to gain more control over tuition in the upcoming general session of the Louisiana Legislature, which begins April 8.

The idea is that colleges and universities should have the power to charge more for high-cost, high-demand programs as state funding declines, they say.

But state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, urged colleges and universities to turn their focus away from funding.

“State appropriations will not be coming back anytime soon,” said Appel, who chairs the state Senate Education committee. “We can see that on a national basis.”

Appel said schools should focus on pushing more students away from more common degrees like general studies, and toward degrees with the potential to lead to increased wealth, such asscience, technology, engineering and math.

He called some degrees “a piece of paper that don’t necessarily translate to a better quality of life.”

“If we’re just jamming too many students into a system just to get a degree, we’re not doing any good,” Appel said.

These discussions came during the third annual Board of Regents Trusteeship Conference on Postsecondary Education, where administrators and board members from the state’s public college and university management boards come together to discuss Louisiana’s higher education outlook.

On the topic of colleges and universities having little control over tuition, interim LSU System President and Baton Rouge Chancellor William Jenkins called the issue “the elephant in the room.”

“It’s been a problem for a long, long time,” Jenkins said, explaining that running an engineering degree program costs significantly more than running an English major program.

Jenkins added that colleges need to be responsible with any increased tuition authority as “there is a tipping point” where schools can price themselves out of the market.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley added that changes to financial aid will have to part of the discussion. “We have to be responsible stewards of pricing. We don’t want just the wealthy to be able to become doctors and engineers,” she said.

The issue of charging students more for higher-cost programs isn’t new. About a year ago, the legislatively formed Governance Commission recommended removing tuition authority from the Legislature.

Last month, the idea got a cool reception from members of the Legislature as state Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said colleges and universities will have a tough time producing enough highly qualified graduates to fill workforce demands if changes aren’t made.

State funding to higher education has declined by more than $625 million since 2008 as Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature worked to balance state budgets.

Louisiana is next to the bottom nationwide in funding two-year schools and last funding four-year schools. At the same time, Louisiana keeps tuition at some of the lowest rates in the nation.

Louisiana is also the only state in the nation that requires two-thirds legislative approval on tuition and fee increases. Current tuition hikes are only allowed through the 2010 LA GRAD Act law that lets colleges raise tuition up to 10 percent each year if they meet certain performance goals including improved graduation and retention rates.

Southern University System President Ronald Mason cautioned that meeting the GRAD Act goals will get increasingly more difficult as schools struggle with reduced funding.

“We need a new pricing model,” Mason said. “We will support that as strongly as we can.”

While the thinking in higher education circles is that it will be hard to convince the Legislature to give up some tuition control, Mason said making changes within a university can be just as difficult for top administrators.

“Leadership of a system is about changing a culture,” Mason said. Some things “have been ingrained for a very long time. While we understand the logic as to what we need to do, getting it done is not as calm and orderly as we’d like.”

Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May said schools should shift their focus to a more market-driven approach.

“We have to pay more attention to what the people want as state funding goes down and tuition goes up,” May said. “We’ve got to look at how we put together a program to align with public needs.”

Rick Staisloff, a consultant with the Maryland-based rpkGroup, agreed that figuring out how Louisiana’s colleges should move forward will be difficult with unstable budgets, but he urged higher education leaders to take on the tough decisions and move as quickly as possible.

“Changing the business model and changing the culture is hard, but if we don’t get our hands on the wheel and embrace change, we’re going to see change happening to us,” he said.