Higher education leaders to Legislature: give us funding or give us tuition autonomy _lowres

File photo of former LSU President F. King Alexander with Gov. John Bel Edwards. 

This week, students begin returning to Louisiana institutions of higher education, with some paying part of their tuition for the first time. That's because this year’s state budget only partially funded the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. Even though they're paying some tuition, TOPS students and those without awards should consider themselves lucky for the bargain rate.

Over the past few years, the average annual tuition and fees for Louisiana baccalaureate-and-above institutions has risen more than 50 percent, and the state’s contribution to higher ed from its general fund (which excludes dedications and transfers that also come from taxpayers) has declined by about that much. These facts, combined with the myth of Louisiana as a “poor” state, created an unfounded belief that the state unfairly asks too much from those seeking a postsecondary education. In fact, comparative data show students in Louisiana typically pay substantially less than their counterparts in other states.

For the last academic year, despite the large tuition and fees hikes, Louisiana still ranked just 35th among the states for senior-level institutions for education expenses with an average full-time cost of $7,870 — about half of the highest state’s. For community and technical colleges, it ranked 27th at $3,970.

However, this doesn’t represent a true measure of the burden. Cost-of-living varies among states, as do their residents' ability to pay. In order to come up with an indicator of the real financial burden of higher education comparable across states, expense figures must be adjusted by a cost-of-living index ( because dollars go farther in lower-cost states), and by per capita income (because higher incomes can offset higher expenses).

While often identified as a “poor” state, in reality Louisiana as of the first quarter of 2016 had a per capita income of $43,665, putting it 36th among the states. Even if below average, that hardly makes Louisiana “poor” since that is over $7,500 more than cellar-dweller neighboring Mississippi.

If looking only at these two metrics, one could conclude tuition and fee pricing matched ability to pay, though junior institutions border on being overpriced. However, in terms of cost-of-living as of the first quarter of 2016, Louisiana comes in 33rd place, at 94 percent of the mean national cost. It's just a few points higher than Mississippi, which is at the bottom, but less than half the price of top-ranked Hawaii.

Factoring all of these together – tuition and fees divided by per capita income divided by cost of living percentage – yearly charges of Louisiana four-year schools comprise just under 17 percent of average annual adjusted income for a person, and for two-year school attendance, that reaches a little over 8.5 percent. These rank 37th and 27th, respectively, among the states. Keep in mind, these figures do not take TOPS or other states’ award programs into account. If included, given TOPS’ generosity and undemanding requirements, Louisiana would come out even better in the cost comparisons.

So even as Louisiana students spent considerably more in tuition and fees over the last few years, comparatively they continue to pay less for their own educations than in most states, particularly for baccalaureate degrees. And they receive considerable help. Because of generous state and federal aid programs, in 2014 Louisiana’s students ranked sixth lowest of the states in average student loan debt.

Given that in 2015 Louisiana stood 31st in state appropriations per capita for higher education, policy-makers who want to shovel more dollars to higher education first should ask students to pay their fair share before reaching further into taxpayers’ wallets to subsidize higher education more.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Email him at jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.