Higher education authorities seek tuition authority


As Louisiana colleges and universities brace for potentially catastrophic budget cuts in the coming year, higher education leaders again plan to urge the state Legislature to give schools the flexibility to set tuition prices without legislative interference. But, as in years past, even supporters of the proposal say they expect it will be hard to convince state lawmakers to part with their control over tuition rates.

The state Board of Regents is slated to outline its legislative agenda during a meeting Monday.

Tuition autonomy is just one of the pieces of a complex puzzle leaders are facing as they head into negotiations over the state budget. Higher education funding is facing a nearly $383 million hit — about 40 percent of the state’s spending on colleges and universities — in the state budget that starts July 1.

Most of the items on the Board of Regents’ legislative priority list directly address the ongoing budget issues, including the proposed constitutional amendment that would be necessary to remove legislative approval over tuition hikes. Louisiana is the only state where two-thirds of the Legislature must sign off on increases in tuition.

Board of Regents member Joe Wiley, of Gonzales, said he thinks that giving more autonomy over tuition would help schools better navigate the budget issues they face.

“Do I think it will happen? No,” he said of the Legislature’s past chilly response to the idea.

The state regulates tuition costs under a constitutional amendment Louisiana voters passed in 1995, requiring a legislative super-majority for hikes on fees state agencies charge.

The proposed constitutional change to exempt tuition from that requirement first would need approval from two-thirds of the state Legislature and would then go on a ballot for Louisiana voters to ultimately decide.

“There are just so many issues involved in that,” Wiley said.

One problem critics see with making that change is that the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is tied directly to tuition prices. TOPS, which costs the state about $200 million each year, covers in-state tuition for Louisiana high school graduates who meet certain academic requirements.

Two years ago the Board of Regents considered filing a lawsuit to challenge whether tuition is covered under the 1995 law. Higher education leaders ultimately dropped that push and opted instead to forgo the courts.

“We have to work with the Legislature,” Wiley said. “We work closely with them.”

Wiley said that he hopes a compromise can be made with lawmakers on areas that would not directly impact TOPS. For example, TOPS doesn’t cover graduate or professional school. It also doesn’t apply to out-of-state students.

“There seems to be an appetite at this point, in the Legislature and perhaps the Governor’s Office, to carve out at least that autonomy, so that the institutions can set their own tuitions with respect to grad programs and professional programs,” he said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget recommendations will be revealed Feb. 27, and state lawmakers will have until June to craft a final version of the fiscal 2016 spending plan.

The prospect of deep cuts comes as state higher education funding already has been deeply slashed. About $700 million has been cut out from funding for Louisiana colleges and universities since 2008.

“Tuition autonomy, really any flexibility we can get on anything, can be helpful in the austerity of the times we are in,” University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said.

Woodley said approval of the tuition autonomy proposal would be more beneficial to some campuses and wouldn’t necessarily mean drastic tuition hikes across the state.

“Some of our institutions not are already at a price point where we worry about affordability,” she said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .