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Advocate file photo of LSU President F. King Alexander

LSU boosted student fees last year because state aid was frozen while assistance for colleges nationwide rose by an average of 3.8 percent, LSU President F. King Alexander told lawmakers Wednesday.

"We are growing and expanding and succeeding," Alexander told the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

"But we need your help," he said. "We need your help to claw back into the academic marketplace so that we are not losing people."

The issue surfaced during a five-hour committee review of budgets for colleges and universities.

Committee members are in the early stages of reviewing Gov. John Bel Edwards's spending proposals before crafting a higher education funding plan of their own.

State aid for colleges and universities remained at standstill levels for the past two years, something of a victory after nearly a decade of budget cuts.

The fact that LSU announced student fee hikes shortly after the Legislature finalized its budget last year sparked criticism from key lawmakers, including House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.

Barras said at the time the increases were a "shocker."

Alexander told the committee he was asked by state legislators why fees rose.

"Our zero percent reduction was a zero percent increase and the U.S. average was 3.8 percent in state appropriations," he said.

Hikes in state aid elsewhere allowed schools in those states to absorb mandated costs while LSU had no such cushion for $8 million in forced spending, Alexander said.

He said fee increases – they totaled about $17 million – allowed the school to handle mandated expenses and provide faculty members with an overdue pay raise.

The hikes mean full-time students pay $282 more per semester on the Baton Rouge campus.

Alexander said higher fees had no impact on fall enrollment, which he said is up by about 6,000 students in the past decade.

"It was the largest freshmen class we have had in history," he said.

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A professor at LSU is paid 8.6 percent less – $10,951 – than the regional average, according to figures provided to the committee.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, pointedly asked higher education officials for data on how the pay of college presidents in Louisiana compares with their regional peers.

Spending per student in Louisiana is 48th in the nation $3,350 below the average, statistics compiled by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association show.

Alexander said Alabama spends more than $4,000 per student above the national average, leaving a gap of more than $7,000 with Louisiana.

Louisiana ranks 16th among 16 states in the region in spending per student through state aid and tuition and fees, according to committee data.

State Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, vice-chairman of the committee, noted that what the state charges on average remains below the regional benchmark – $9,273 here versus $9,914 in neighboring states.

Alexander downplayed regional comparisons.

He said reaching that benchmark in the poorest region of the nation "is not a goal any of us should aspire to. We should do better."

In a mild surprise, LSU's new admission policy did not spark questions or controversy.

The school now admits some students who fail to meet traditional standards, which has triggered charges that LSU is lowering its standards.

Alexander and others dispute that criticism.

Committee members were also presented data that show enrollment at community and technical colleges has dropped 21 percent since 2010, to 65,036 last fall.

Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed and Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said those figures are misleading.

Unlike four-year schools students at two-year colleges enroll nearly year round, not just at the start of the fall and spring semesters, officials said.

They are often enrolled only long enough to earn a credential that ensures a better-paying job.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.