In Louisiana, if a public college or university wants to raise its tuition, two-thirds of the members of the Legislature have to sign off on the increase. It's a standard that LSU President F. King Alexander has called "the death knell" of such legislation.
It's the highest threshold for any state in the nation. Most states leave it up to higher education leaders to set tuition. Florida is the only other state that requires legislative approval, but with a simple majority.
This November, voters will be asked whether to change the rules and let Louisiana's higher education boards and institutions make those decisions for themselves.
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Higher education officials say the ability to control their own tuition rates is critical, as the state-funded portion of their budgets has been dramatically slashed over the past nine years. Since 2008, higher education has lost 55 percent of its state funding, largely supplanting those lost dollars with higher tuition and fees for students.
Opponents of the change say legislative oversight ensures that tuition, which already has doubled over the same period of time for many schools, doesn't continue to skyrocket, pricing many students out of attending college.
The measure will appear on ballots this Nov. 8 as Constitutional Amendment No. 2.
Alexander noted that tuition and state funds are the two primary sources of revenue for any public higher education institution, and that Louisiana higher education leaders don't have control of either one.
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"We have to have control of our own destiny," he said.
LSU has among the lowest per-student funding of all 50 flagship state schools in the country. Alexander said that's because the school has both low tuition and low state funding.
Louisiana divested state dollars from higher education at a faster rate than any other state in the country during the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Alexander said if the state is not going to restore state revenue for public education, then schools like LSU need tuition flexibility to stay competitive.
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He said university leaders will base tuition decisions on market rates to ensure they don't lose students, whereas legislators may vote for what's politically expedient. "We know our markets better than politicians do, and we know our breaking points," he said.
But state Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said she wants the Legislature to retain its oversight over tuition.
"This is not a move in the right direction," she said. "While I've heard the argument several times that the universities will not outprice themselves, I do believe they could raise tuition (to the point) where, in fact, some young people can't afford to go to college."
She acknowledged that universities are being squeezed financially on both ends, but she said revenue increases should not come "on the backs of students."
Joseph Rallo, the state higher education commissioner for the Board of Regents, said that realistically, most schools besides LSU and Louisiana Tech are unlikely to see continued increases in tuition.
"Your institution attracts a certain type of student, and if you're at the top of tuition and fees, it's counterproductive and you're going to lose students," he said. But he added that Louisiana schools are still paying below the average rate compared to other schools around the country.
While typically Louisiana public universities needed a two-thirds legislative vote to increase tuition, they have been operating since 2010 under the Louisiana GRAD Act, which allowed for some tuition increases.
Under that law, schools that met annual academic benchmarks for graduation rates and retention were allowed to raise their tuition by 10 percent a year, to offset cuts in state funding.
For the past two years, the Legislature also granted schools freedom to raise student fees — which also typically require legislative approval.
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However, both the fee autonomy and the GRAD Act increases have ended. So if voters reject the constitutional amendment, schools will lose the limited autonomy they've enjoyed in recent years.