Stephanie Grace notes: Serious, difficult discussions on higher ed issues could finally happen in Legislature _lowres

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses a Joint Legislative Session in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, March 14, 2016. Edwards said Monday that while Louisiana's budget troubles will continue to be his focus, he'll also seek to fulfill campaign promises to raise the minimum wage and enact an equal pay law. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)

For years, Louisiana lawmakers have been talking about taking a big look at how the state delivers public higher education, but not doing all that much about it. Could 2016 be the year that all changes?

Just about everyone agrees that major structural fixes are needed in order to put the state’s budget on a more sustainable path. Yet due to restrictions on what lawmakers can consider in which type of legislative session, a full-scale debate on how to make the tax code more sensible will have to wait.

Not so the discussion over higher ed, one of two or three major areas that always takes a hit when money runs short. And indeed, lawmakers have filed numerous bills for the new regular legislative session aimed at examining the system’s needs and its efficiency, or lack thereof.

There are bills to allow the Legislature to close or merge campuses. To allow universities to raise their own tuition. To streamline a complex governance structure, replacing five separate boards with one. And of course, to curb the cost of the immensely popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, better known as the TOPS scholarships.

The way things are shaping up, we may finally see a serious discussion of all these topics.

None of the proposals will be easy, of course.

Every college has a built-in geographical constituency, consisting of employees and students. Historically black universities, even those with low graduation rates, have their own backers who insist these schools provide opportunity to those who might otherwise go without; taking them on is always difficult. Suggestions to limit TOPS seem to always provoke a mass outcry. And while some say Louisiana has too many campuses compared to other states, others insist common per-capita comparisons are apples to oranges.

Still, the debate is a promising one. And given the dark clouds that have been hanging over higher ed officials’ heads over the past several years, it’s one they should welcome.

‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.