Big shift: Louisiana voters to decide whether Legislature should control university tuitions _lowres

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Louisiana’s universities and colleges are closer than ever to having the ability to control their own tuition — but first, voters will decide.

The Louisiana Legislature, in a complete shift from previous years, has signaled that it’s time for higher education officials to set their own tuition instead of lawmakers. After years of rejecting similar attempts, both chambers have approved a bill that, if approved by voters this fall, would take the Legislature out of the tuition-setting process and allow the schools and system boards to set the rates.

Several members of the House on Thursday suggested that the Legislature owed these schools the financial autonomy because the state has failed to properly fund higher education, which has been cut by more than half over the past eight years. But the opponents of the bill noted that tuitions already are higher than ever, and the potential for even higher tuitions could have a detrimental impact on students who are footing the bill.

“For the last five years, when we’ve debated this bill, we’ve asked whether institutions would act in a responsible fashion,” said Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, a supporter of the bill. “We’re the ones who have not acted responsibly.”

Ultimately, Senate Bill 80, by state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, passed the House 95-7. It already has passed the Senate and does not require the signature of the governor. But before it’s official, the Senate will have to sign off on some minor amendments and then a majority of the state’s voters will have to approve.

For years, higher education officials have called for autonomy, noting that the Legislature is in control of both their main sources of funding: state dollars and tuition and fees.

After the Thursday vote, Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Rallo applauded the move.

“Louisiana higher education is now poised to act in the best interest of our students when setting tuition, allowing market forces to drive the best decisions,” Rallo said in a statement. “This is a huge feat for our institutions, as the passage of this bill provides our systems with greater financial flexibility, the ability to better plan and the opportunity to be more responsive to the constituents which they serve.”

For more than two decades, the Louisiana Legislature has had the authority to increase and decrease tuition for higher education. Florida is the only other state in the nation that gives lawmakers the control, and Louisiana is the only state that requires the hefty two-thirds majority to make the change.

For the past few years, post-secondary institutions have had the opportunity to make limited tuition increases in exchange for hitting benchmarks set in the Louisiana GRAD Act. The GRAD Act largely called for higher graduation rates, and not all schools could meet the marks. Next school year also is the last year of the GRAD Act.

But combatting dwindling state dollars, several universities, including LSU, have used the GRAD Act to double their tuitions over the past eight years. Tuition in Louisiana public universities is still among the lowest in the South.

Among the opponents of the bill was state Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite.

“I’m not going to delegate what I think is one of our main responsibilities, which is higher education, to a board,” Carter said. “When a constituent comes to me and says, ‘Why was the tuition raised?’ I want to say that these are the facts that were presented to me that justify that.”

Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, said the state is in danger of not being able to fully fund the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships, which thousands of in-state students rely on to pay for school. He said higher education leaders have indicated they are intent on raising tuition, and many students could find themselves unable to pay for school.

But advocates of the bill argued the free market and a desire to attract students would prevent schools from drastically raising tuition.

Higher education leaders previously have stated that in some cases, they would like the power to reduce tuitions that are too high or offer differentiated tuition where different degree programs can cost different amounts at the same school.

Thibodaux Rep. Dee Richard, who has no party affiliation, said he previously has opposed efforts to give schools tuition autonomy.

“But the state is not supporting higher education. The state isn’t funding higher education,” he said. “So it’s time for us to give them authority.”

Rep. Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston, said in terms of higher education oversight, “I don’t think we’d get an A, B or C — maybe a D or an F.

“It’s my opinion we turn authority over to those who know the most,” Shadoin said.

If voters approve the change, tuition authority would be set by the schools and approved by the four system boards of supervisors: LSU system; Southern University system; the Louisiana Community and Technical College System; and the University of Louisiana system, which includes the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Southeastern Louisiana University, Louisiana Tech and the University of New Orleans.

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