Higher education leaders to Legislature: give us funding or give us tuition autonomy _lowres

File photo of LSU President

As Louisiana lawmakers spar over the $600 million shortfall in next year’s budget, leaders of the state’s colleges and universities are bracing for what is likely to be higher ed’s 16th cut in nine years.

The most recent version of the budget, passed by the Louisiana House, cuts higher education systems by about 12 percent from the previous year — a number that doesn’t include TOPS funding. But over the past eight years, state funding for higher education already has been reduced by more than half.

Leaders say they’re at their wit’s end and cannot continue to be whittled down. But this year, in addition to their annual rallying cry against deeper cuts to the classrooms, university and college leaders have also started loudly demanding more autonomy from the Legislature to control their own finances — particularly in the area of tuition.

“If we’re not going to fund performance, then let us out of the corral,” LSU President F. King Alexander recently pled with the Senate Finance committee. “Let us charge what we know the markets will bear.”

In addition to losing state aid at a rate that has outpaced the rest of the nation, Louisiana colleges and universities also are handcuffed when it comes to the other main source of academic revenue: tuition and fees. While laws have been put into place to give the schools limited autonomy for raising tuition and fees in recent years, generally any increases or decreases are controlled by the Legislature.

Alexander has often decried the fact that LSU ranks both low for state funding and tuition rates, whereas most schools tend to be one or the other.

In the House’s version of the state spending plan LSU and Southern University systems take the deepest cuts. LSU would be reduced by 15 percent and Southern by 20 percent from the previous school year. The University of Louisiana system, which includes Louisiana Tech University, Grambling State University and the University of New Orleans, would be cut by 10 percent. And the Louisiana Community and Technical College’s 13 schools would receive about a 1 percent cut.

The cuts are deeper than what Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed in his version of the budget. His total cuts for the systems were about 6 percent, however, his budget included much deeper cuts for the popular TOPS scholarships. The state Senate this week is taking its own stab at the budget, and the Governor’s Office has requested they reverse the changes made by the House.

“For years, we’ve been asked to do more with less, but now we’re getting to the point where we’re doing less with less,” said Joseph Rallo, Louisiana higher education commissioner. “There’s hardly any ‘public’ left in the public funding.”

In particular, the reduction of funds puts the LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport in jeopardy. Alexander said at that funding level, the medical school and hospital could run out of resources by December.

“The House cut of 15 percent is highly unacceptable,” Alexander said in an interview. “We’re working with the Senate to rectify and get us back to where we were with some additional funds we need for mandatory growth.”

The LSU system is asking for about $390 million to account for enrollment expansion? and cost increases.

But to make matters worse, the 2016-17 school year is the last one where schools get to enjoy both the freedom to raise fees and the ability to raise tuition. Universities and colleges were given a window to raise fees without legislative approval. This is the final year of the Louisiana GRAD Act, a law passed in 2010 that gave schools the ability to raise tuition if they met benchmarks, including meeting graduation rate goals.

But this year, there are two bills that could give schools more autonomy.

House Bill 989, by state Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, would give schools the ability to lower tuition and fees for out-of-state students. Current law mandates those rates be equal to the regional average for Southern schools, which makes it difficult for Louisiana schools to compete for out-of-state students.

Out-of-state students tend to be a good deal for the state because they pay higher rates of tuition and they aren’t subsidized by TOPS scholarships, which are paid for out of the state budget.

The other bill is Senate Bill 80, by Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, which would grant tuition autonomy. Currently, tuition can’t be changed without a two-thirds vote of the Louisiana Legislature. The Senate-passed SB80 is scheduled for a vote in the House on Wednesday.

Morrish, the Jennings Republican that chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he believes the measure is particularly well-timed because another measure that untied TOPS awards from tuition levels recently was signed into law, meaning TOPS awards no longer automatically increase along with tuition increases. That puts competitive pressure on universities and colleges, he said, to consider what their students will be willing to pay. Ultimately, he said, he doesn’t believe tuition would be dramatically increased.

And higher education leaders agree.

In recent years, to combat the loss of state revenues, using the GRAD Act has increased tuition at many Louisiana schools by as much as 100 percent over the past eight years. Leaders of the school systems say the autonomy could very well be used to lower tuition.

“I don’t think tuition autonomy should be seen as increasing tuition,” Rallo said. “It’s not going to happen at the price point we’re at right now where we’ve probably seen it maxed out.”

But Rallo said he believes in differentiated tuition models, where some degree programs could be more expensive than others at the same school.

Alexander said autonomy give schools more flexibility to try to raise revenue in a climate where state revenue continues to decline. But he also suggested that could mean decreases to incentivise more students to attend.

“Currently, we can’t even reduce our out-of-state law school tuition because we’ve priced ourselves higher than some of our peers while they’ve reduced themselves,” he said. “Law is a highly competitive environment right now. We’re the only state in the nation that needs a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to reduce tuition.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.