Louisiana students are paying more than the regional and national averages to attend community colleges and the issue needs to be addressed, Higher Education Commissioner Kim Hunter Reed said Monday.
Families here pay 21.1 percent of their income when enrolled in the two-year schools compared to 17 percent in other Southern states and 18.2 percent nationally, according to data compiled by the Southern Regional Education Board.
"The bottom line is this: If you can't afford it you can't achieve it," Reed told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.
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"When your point of entry is not affordable it is a real challenge in a state where we need to increase credentials," she said.
In 2010-11 students here used 17 percent of their income to attend community colleges.
Community colleges are celebrating their 20th year, and have long been touted as an affordable way for students to earn post-secondary education even if they do not attend a four-year school.
However, all colleges and universities have undergone a huge change in the past decade in terms of state support compared to what students pay in tuition and fees.
Tuition accounted for 64 percent of revenue at two-year schools in 2015-16 -- the latest available -- compared to 37 percent a decade earlier.
Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said the board that oversees the schools has gone four years without raising tuition and three years without a boost in fees.
"We have been sensitive to this issue for some time," Sullivan said.
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Affordability at community colleges is especially significant amid new state goals for education attainment.
The state Board of Regents wants 60 percent of the population to have a credential by 2030 compared to 45.7 percent today.
One way to address affordability, Reed said, is to ensure that students take advantage of every form of financial assistance that can help them finish their degree requirements.
While Reed focused on community colleges the same disparity exists for technical schools.
Families here use 20.6 percent of their income on technical school charges compared to 18.6 percent regionally and 18.2 percent nationally.
Louisiana has 12 community and technical colleges used by about 155,000 students.
The average yearly tuition is $4,250.
Sullivan said that, under a plan authorized by the Legislature last year, 120 students last fall and about 350 students in the spring semester attended schools without charge after meeting academic requirements.
He said the $175,000 to finance the program was raised privately.
The report also shows Louisiana spends less than average for need-based aid, which includes lots of community college students, compared to merit-based student assistance, which includes the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS.
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The state spends $161 on average for need-based aid compared to an average of $343 in the region and $376 nationally.
It spends $1,601 for merit-based assistance compared to an average of $416 in the region and $168 in the U. S.
Most TOPS dollars go to students attending four-year schools.
"The question is how do we make sure we have more resources so we can stop the increases in tuition and fees," Reed said after the meeting.
"We can stop that by trying to make sure we are addressing unfunded mandates and faculty increase," she said.
"We can increase need-based aid to make sure more people have access. We can leverage public benefits so more people have resources to do that."
"So there are a number of ways to try to think about it," Reed added. "My point is we have to think about it. The result of this report is we are moving in the wrong direction."