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Defensive cracks give hope to higher education reform

Admirably, the Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors forced consideration of larger issues about the state’s higher education system when it requested that the Louisiana Legislature this upcoming session to free institutions from any constraints on tuition and fees and increasing autonomy in general.

In its meeting last week, the supervisors passed a resolution requesting greater autonomy, a preference supported by higher education administrators in general, and another which would return tuition and fee determination back to the governing boards like their system’s, altered two decades ago to require legislative approval of increases in these, although legislation from a few years ago made an exception to allow for increases up to 10 percent without that blessing so long as schools reached performance targets. Heretofore, administrators have not backed that measure with tuition, although they have with fees and have fallen behind a bill to set the stage for that.

They have resisted loosening tuition restrictions because then policy-makers could tell them that they must use this tool to increase revenues, forgoing some or any contribution of increased taxpayer commitment. That the 10 percent increases that have happened over the past few years occurred in conjunction with reductions in the state’s allotment lend credence to this view. Administrators always prefer using taxpayer resources than own resources, for as tuition and fees rise, at the margins fewer students enroll, which threatens programs and jobs, a special concern in Louisiana because of the overbuilt nature of its higher education system that already has too few students chasing too many institutions.

But if there is one part that would break from this orthodoxy, it would be the LSU System. The Baton Rouge campus is the state’s flagship, and about 90 percent of the system’s resources goes into it (including graduate education). As for the remainder, it intends to tie in the afterthought Shreveport and Alexandria campuses, which have suffered through the proliferation of baccalaureate-and-above schools (the latter contributing by becoming the most recent promotion from community college status), more thoroughly to Baton Rouge. Its market leader status allow it most autonomy in pricing decisions and, best of all, suffers the least from increasing its price point because roughly three-fifth of its full-time students are recipients of Taylor Opportunity Programs for Students recipients that taxpayer dollars cover anyway for tuition.

Further, board members are not administrators. They are political appointees of the governor (with the exception of a student representative), its current occupant having overseen the shift in models from one that relied heavily on taxpayer funds towards the more common model across the states that gathers more revenues from tuition (that Louisiana’s on average for senior institutions in fourth-lowest in the country for a state in the middle of per capita and median family income rankings is what puts the state near the bottom of per student funding of these, even as it ranks 18th in per capita spending on all higher education). They don’t join in the strategy of administrators, that attempts to portray the current reduction threat as a problem of insufficient taxpayer largesse rather than reluctance to have students pay their fair share for a service that primarily benefits themselves and also is a product of the overbuilt system and, to a lesser extent, of inefficient delivery of the service

Yet administrators want the resources, and if policy-makers tell them the door is shut to getting more taxpayer dollars, they will take that fallback position of increasing revenue-raising autonomy over nothing. The supervisors have signaled as such, backed up by state Rep. Thomas Carmody’s bills introduced for this session, where HB 61 would amend the constitution to allow for implementation of HB 66 that grants the authority.

Of course, this could not go into effect at least until the Spring, 2016 terms so a temporary taxpayer-based funding solution would have to be found, but legislators must stay firm to fund an amount only through the end of the year (and ensure the amendment takes effect at the end of 2015). This will discourage higher education from lobbying the public to defeat the measure and to encourage it to argue for passage.

For administrators, especially from the University of Louisiana and Southern University systems, otherwise would argue vociferously against it, as will certain legislators, whose chests puff out in pride more from having a school in their district or nearby than in ensuring taxpayer money gets spent efficiently and wisely, as their systems would be most adversely affected. But if a legislative majority holds the line on the budgeting aspect and presents the measure as an accomplished fate, the legislative minority, which otherwise may have enough votes to thwart the two-thirds needed to pass along an amendment, will have no choice to relent. In doing so, badly needed higher education reform, tepid to this point, will commence in robust fashion, either by right-sizing the proportion of revenues generated by schools, by right-sizing the system itself, or through both.

Thus the supervisors acted commendably, and Carmody deserves plaudits for taking the legislative lead (although the governing boards may not be so happy with his HB 60 that consolidates them). Now it’s up to the willpower of elected officials to see through this portion of needed reform.

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