Louisiana’s colleges and universities ought to be given the authority to be more flexible with tuition and set prices based on program costs and the popularity of certain degrees among students, higher education leaders told lawmakers Thursday.

That was the message interim University of Louisiana System President Tom Layzell brought to state legislators during budget hearings Thursday at the State Capitol.

Higher education leaders, including recently retired UL System President Randy Moffett, have been calling for the state to adopt differential tuition going back several years.

The idea is that students would be willing to pay more for high-demand degrees, like a master’s in business administration or a bachelor’s in civil engineering, because of the potential for a lucrative payday on the back end after graduating, Layzell said.

And as Layzell pointed out to legislators at the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget hearing degrees in the sciences generally cost universities more than liberal arts degrees, making differential tuition a win-win for all parties.

Layzell warned that continued state budget cuts dating back to 2008 has the UL System on the verge of crossing that “invisible line” at which point colleges and universities can no longer function effectively.

The system includes Southeastern Louisiana University, in Hammond, the University of Louisiana at Lafayetteand the University of New Orleans.

State funding for higher education has been slashed by more than $425 million over the past four years. The UL System has absorbed more than $200 million of those cuts as Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state Legislature maneuver year-after-year to balance the budget.

Layzell said the UL System has “done all the right things” in response to cuts, including tailoring degree programs to marketplace needs, reducing spending and encouraging employee retirements with incentives.

The UL System awarded more than 16,000 degrees last year; increased enrollment by 14 percent since 2008; and reduced its workforce by roughly 26 percent over the last several years.

Administrators say they also have been aggressive in pushing ever-growing numbers of their 92,000 students toward online education. Layzell said the UL System last year offered students 80 complete online degree programs — 12 percent of all degree programs available.

The system is set to make an even bigger push for the online market next spring when the system’s nine universities launch a collaborative degree program leading to a bachelor’s of arts degree in organizational leadership.

The accelerated degree program for adults who started college but did not finish will be offered in collaboration by all nine UL System colleges. Core classes would be taught at all schools, but the specific concentrations would be taught by faculty at different universities.

For example, a student interested in a degree in disaster relief management would take concentration courses from faculty at Southeastern Louisiana University online and other courses from faculty at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

But in spite of those efforts, higher education leaders say they are weary about the future because budget cuts.

Members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget saw a parade of university administrators come to the front of a hearing room Thursday and describe a wide-array of dismal conditions budget cuts have caused colleges and universities, from low morale and program cutbacks to faculty shortfalls.

University of New Orleans President Peter Fos, for instance, described how his school is experiencing a mass faculty exodus in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“People are leaving for more money, and when we lose someone, we typically don’t replace them,” Fos said. “This is critical situation for an urban research institution.”

On average, UL System faculty earn several thousand dollars less than the Southern regional average. McNeese State University President Phillip Williams testified that specialized faculty typically can demand six-figure salaries to teach the courses students are most interested in.

Southeastern Louisiana University President John Crain said universities are running the risk of losing accreditation due to “financial instability” as accrediting agencies take into account faculty quality and the resources instructors have to work with.

“We’re seeing some real cracks around the edges,” he said.