When higher education leaders started gearing up for the legislative session, they had a short list of requests.
First and foremost, they wanted to be spared from potentially devastating cuts to state funding for universities and colleges. As the Legislature continues its work on the budget, that threat appears to have lessened somewhat.
The rest of the higher education legislative wish list has been winding its way through the Capitol, with three weeks left in the session.
“There’s a variety of things that we feel positive about,” Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo said.
One of the more closely watched proposals has been an effort to rein in the costs of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which covers tuition at state colleges for in-state students. Recent tuition hikes have led to ballooning costs for the program, as award amounts went up to cover the increased price.
The proposal to limit the cost of TOPS is heading to the full House for approval, after winning the blessing of the House Education Committee last week. It has already sailed through the Senate, with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue as the key driver behind the legislation.
It’s the furthest that such a proposal has made it through the Legislature, and Donahue, R-Mandeville, has framed the argument as being about saving TOPS, rather than capping or cutting it.
“This will help preserve the program for the long term,” he told the House Education panel.
The proposal has the backing of a key TOPS supporter who has previously opposed changes to the program: Phyllis Taylor, the widow of the man for whom the program is named.
Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes the TOPS change, though he hasn’t said if he would veto the bill if it makes it to his desk. His office has been the only opponent to testify against Donahue’s bill during committee hearings.
Because the legislation would require legislative approval for future increases in award amounts, Jindal’s staff has framed it as a cap on those awards.
“TOPS is a promise we made to students of Louisiana,” said Jindal’s deputy chief of staff, Stafford Palmieri.
Intrinsically linked to the TOPS debate: State higher education leaders want the Legislature to give up its control over setting tuition and fees.
Such control was cited among the top goals the state Board of Regents identified at the start of the session. Louisiana is one of only three states that give state lawmakers control over the price of attending public colleges.
Such a change wouldn’t solve budget issues in the coming year but could have a significant impact down the road, and it could play into discussions on the loss of state funding that colleges have suffered in recent years.
So far, there has been a mixed reaction to various bills that would give up the Legislature’s control.
Without unlinking tuition from TOPS, the Legislature won’t hand over full tuition-setting authority. Both proposals would require a statewide vote, but they face a big test soon when both hit the House floor for consideration.
Other bills appear to serve as backup plans in case the Legislature isn’t ready to tackle TOPS. One proposal would apply only to advanced-degree tuition, because TOPS covers only the first four years of college. Another bill would apply only to fees, because TOPS covers only tuition.
For the most part, legislators have been hesitant.
Several proposals that have come up in the House have been amended to include a two-year sunset provision — meaning the Legislature would have to take up the measure again in 2017, after it has seen how it has played out.
The tuition and fee bills require approval from two-thirds of each chamber.
The House has already shot down one proposal. Another — dealing only with tuition-setting authority for advanced-degree programs — earned the support of a majority of the House but didn’t get the two-thirds it needed to pass. It’s scheduled to come up again.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said he thinks the TOPS and tuition bills are important, and he’s been a supporter of both plans.
“If you don’t do something, then TOPS may not be available in just a few years,” he said.
But he said that goes only so far to address deep issues in higher education.
He is pushing a resolution that would require the Board of Regents to conduct a review of higher education in the state and report back to the Legislature on more significant changes that should be made to make the systems more efficient and effective.
“We have been focused almost entirely on finding money for higher ed, and we have heard nothing about the spending side,” Appel said.
He said he has noticed a more collaborative spirit among higher education leaders. All four system heads and Rallo have attended nearly every major hearing that has touched on higher education.
Other legislation that has gained some traction would allow schools to loosen their entry requirements. That has raised concern about the need for more remediation programs on campuses.
After years of attempting to steer the state’s remediation efforts through the two-year college system, four-year colleges are hoping that even bringing in less-qualified students can still add much-needed money to their coffers.
“The sad part is we have to have that discussion,” Appel said.
A bill that would set up a “veteran-friendly” designation that colleges could earn appears to be coasting toward approval. That bill has Jindal’s backing.