Study reveals new details, shows TOPS free Louisiana college tuition goes mostly to white students _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU's Memorial Tower, or Campanile, as it is sometimes called. It's a 175-foot tall clock tower near the Student Union.

The price of going to a public college or university in Louisiana is going up again for students starting school in the coming weeks. 

LSU, LSU-Alexandria, LSU-Shreveport, the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Southeastern Louisiana University have all increased tuition for the fall semester somewhere between 2 and 6 percent, which amounts to a few hundred dollars per semester.

The other state schools either opted not to increase tuition or else could not do so because they didn't meet the requirements of the Louisiana GRAD Act, the legislative mechanism the various institutions are relying on to implement the hikes. 

But even at many of the schools where tuition is staying the same, fees are on the rise. 

Steep increases in fees and tuition have been part of an annual trend for many of Louisiana's post-secondary educational institutions in recent years.

But the latest round of increases adds insult to injury for many students and parents who are weary from seeing their bills increase every year or are unexpectedly having to foot at least 30 percent of their tuition because of the first-ever cut to the popular state TOPS scholarship program, which affects more than 50,000 students.

The increases are also coming despite Gov. John Bel Edwards' recent public plea to higher education officials to resist hiking tuition for students this fall.

LSU students will see tuition increase by 4.95 percent, or $242 per semester. In addition, fees at the state's flagship school are increasing by $177 per semester. So for the full school year, an LSU student's costs are going up at least $838 next year.

Meanwhile, students who previously had their full tuition covered by TOPS at LSU will be footing the bill for an extra $2,100 because of the cut to the program.

"I understand they've been fighting with this budget all year, but it's still like, 'Really? Y'all have to do this now?' " said Kristen White, a mass communication senior at LSU, about the decision to raise tuition and fees this year after TOPS was cut. "It's causing a lot of financial stress on people like me and those around me." 

LSU President F. King Alexander said in a letter to the LSU Board of Supervisors that the Baton Rouge campus is using restraint by not increasing tuition a full 10 percent, as allowed under the LA GRAD Act.

"The flagship's adjustment is less than half of the amount permitted under the law for this year and well below what we have exercised in previous years," he said. 

He noted that university officials were balancing the governor's request to minimize tuition increases against growing mandated costs for pensions and insurance.

The letter also noted that universities were told to prepare for a potential mid-year shortfall later this fiscal year. 

Monturios Howard, a political science and African American studies senior at LSU, said he doesn't receive TOPS, so he's felt the brunt of continuous tuition and fee hikes in recent years.

Howard has taken out loans and works 40 hours a week as a manager at Chick-fil-A to help cover his costs, while managing to keep his grades up and stay involved in school organizations like Student Government. That means sometimes he gets home from work at 11 p.m. and does schoolwork deep into the night.

Howard said his primary concern is that continued increases in tuition will keep lower-income, predominantly minority students out of schools like LSU. 

"It's going to make for a less diverse university," he said. "You have to remember that poverty disproportionately affects minorities."

None of the schools in the Southern University system or the Louisiana Community and Technical College System opted to raise tuition. But a variety of fees are going up for those schools. For example, at Southern University in Baton Rouge, there's a university support fee of $367, and students enrolled at technical colleges will be assessed a fee of between $104 to $151 if they take 16 or more credit hours.

Monty Sullivan, president of the LCTCS, said tuition will stay flat at all of the two-year institutions in the system because the state didn't slash their budget for the first time in several years. 

"We felt like we were in a position to not have to impact Louisiana families," he said. "The other part of it is we have to be careful to not price ourselves out of the market, since for many of our students, what other option do they have?"

This is the last year schools have the autonomy to increase their tuition and fees under two legislative acts passed in recent years. The GRAD Act gave schools the ability to increase tuition 10 percent per year, if the school hit certain benchmarks like improved graduation rates. Aside from that legislation, Louisiana is the only state in the nation that typically requires a two-thirds vote of lawmakers to allow public colleges and universities to increase tuition and fees.

This November voters will decide on a proposal that will strip the Legislature of that tuition oversight. 

Through the GRAD Act, schools like LSU have more than doubled their tuition rates over the past decade. Meanwhile, fees also have soared. Most schools have doubled and some, like Southeastern and Louisiana Tech, have more than tripled their fees over that period of time. 

"I don't think people care whether it's a tuition or a fee; it's all contributing to the cost of college," said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project. 

The shift of costs to students has been a direct result of the state withdrawing more than half of its dollars for higher education during that time.

"We're a very poor state, so it behooves us to keep our tuition low," Moller said, noting he was concerned about the combination of the TOPS cut this year with the increases in tuition and fees. "Hopefully, it won't discourage students or price people out of seeking a higher education. That's certainly the danger." 

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.