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Largely spared, higher education still needs to make case

As debate continues over the substantive impact of significant cuts made in the Louisiana House of Representatives as a result of short-term political posturing, left out of that is one of the three receptacles of state general fund revenues, higher education. This does not mean that reductions in what was proposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal haven’t been queued up, or that all of those reductions forced because of other legislative inaction make good policy sense.

At the margins, some nibbling has occurred to higher education budgets as forwarded. For example, in HB 1 the car and housing allowances of system and institution leaders got cuts from a quarter to half of their levels two years ago. Further, HB 1 essentially reads state Rep. Simone Champagne’s HB 173 into it, prohibiting leader pay above 10 percent of the regional average and no car or housing allowances for the future. And it transferred over $900,000 from the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center for functions more appropriately performed by the state’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry.

But some actions that result in cuts range from the skeptical to counterintuitive and contradictory.
As part of legal requirements, the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget denied higher education’s request to increase tuition rates another five percent on top of the five percent it may impose unilaterally, citing uncertainty as to whether institutions had made sufficient progress in improving performance. It’s a legitimate question (even as the failure came more for political reasons that anything else; committee Senate Democrats voted as a bloc to stop it probably as a ploy to embarrass Jindal to make him seem like he had to cut higher education more and/or to pressure him to increase taxes), one the JLCB likely will revisit before the session’s end which could result in $37.5 million more dollars as originally budgeted.

Also questionable as to whether the case exists for additional anticipated revenues is state Rep. Frank Hoffman’s HB 97 that would allow an increase in the operational (that is, a general) fee a campus may charge to non-Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars recipients by removing the four percent cap on it. This might be appropriate, or maybe not, but to date higher education has not really provided justification as to why these should increase and the bill has gone nowhere.

Other money is hung up despite the obvious ways in which it would help improve delivery of higher education. HB 448 by state Rep. Hollis Downs would remove the 12-hour cap (semester basis) on tuition charged by universities. This means that most students could take up to 18 hours not needing additional university approval at two-thirds the normal cost, and those at 15 hours pay only 80 percent.

This current regime creates perverse incentives for inefficient use of taxpayer dollars. Every semester, some students will enroll for 15-18 hours with a deliberate plan to drop one or two of the classes in which they perceive they are having the most difficulty (for most curricula in the state, 15 hours a semester will ensure graduation in four years without taking summer or other special classes, and 12 hours is considered by state and federal officials for aid purposes as being a full-time student), because those additional classes are “free.” As a result, universities deliberately must staff at higher levels than necessary, increasing costs, and even then they may not be able to offer as many as they would like, meaning they may not have room for students needing classes to stay on course or to graduate, delaying completion for some, because more cavalier students subsidized by taxpayers in this effort lock them out.

Unfortunately on this issue, demagogues thunder about how this increases costs to students, without realizing many students affected who don’t practice this gamesmanship in taking hours are the stronger students on TOPS so they wouldn’t have to endure any extra costs. Nor do they address the fundamental argument about why should not the direct beneficiaries of a state service voluntarily contracted pay more and taxpayers less for that.

If higher education could make a better case on these issues, it might get all these revenues that Jindal originally had plugged into the budget. But that’s the key element, in that a skeptical public and legislators still remain uncertain about a Louisiana system of higher education that, as of the latest data available (for all states and the District of Columbia), ranks 10th in total number of institutions, seventh in institutions per capita, eighth in state appropriations per capita, and 45th in total tuition and fees paid per enrollee. More evidence of bringing efficiency into the system and why beneficiaries should not pay more for their educations needed presenting.

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