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College funding plan needs more economy, boldness

Given parameters by Gov. Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s higher education management boards have come up with partly-workable plan to address a potential looming funding crisis. It’s a start that will have to go through revision in order to be politically acceptable and to constitute best policy.

Part of the more than $220 million that would be raised by these changes, to offset predicted but undetermined revenue declines that could be higher in next year’s budget, would be taking advantage of permissible tuition increases of around $60 million. Another portion would come from extra fees totaling about $86.5 million. The remainder of around $75 million would come from abolishing the 12-hour tuition cap, which means that students who take more than 12 hours only pay for 12 hours per semester.

The last is a very needed change. Many students will select up to 18 hours (usually more than that needs administrative approval), then drop their two lowest-performing 3-hour classes with the generous drop dates (usually into the tenth week of the regular 15-week semester), wasting university resources. But in isolation this would cause, in essence, a tuition hike that would not be paid for by the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students for its recipients since it is capped at 12 hours. Since recent mandates have made most programs require 120 hours of credit – 15 hours per regular semester – TOPS awards should be raised to 15 hours, cutting away some of that roughly $75 million, to be fair in giving students a chance to graduate in four years (without summer school, not paid for by TOPS).

Regardless, TOPS needs reform in any event. It currently permits marginal students to attend baccalaureate institutions. If its standards were raised, not only would some marginal students, whose chances of successful degree completion at these institutions are not high, not provide a drain on the program, it would provide greater incentives for more serious students to achieve in high school to get better American College Test scores and take more rigorous classes, making them better prepared to succeed with TOPS. The program also could be altered to steer less capable students to community and technical colleges, where, because of lower instructional costs, tens of millions more a year could be saved in addition to lower overall TOPS costs to taxpayers.

But the fee hikes, which would require two-thirds approval by the legislature, are much more wanting. Presently, fees charged by universities bear at least some resemblance to some specific function; for example, the technology fee of $5 per hour specifically goes to funding projects that increase instructional capacity. However, the two new contemplated fees amount to little more than an extra charge solely to raise revenue, almost as a substitute for tuition by another name. These violate the spirit of the recently-enacted GRAD Act which allows for the tuition increases without legislative approval and as yet are not proposed to be tied to any accountability measures such as the GRAD Act demands. The Legislature will look dimly on that idea and, in any event, probably has tired sufficiently on the inefficient use of state dollars for higher education to see this idea in any better light.

This approach also signals more of a cosmetic that transformative strategy to creating greater efficiency in higher education delivery. The two biggest potential money-savers, collapsing five systems operating higher education into two or fewer and consolidating and reassigning levels of instruction for institutions, do not seem to be part of this plan.

At the very least, the best plan would address reengineering TOPS and system consolidation in the short term. Such a plan also should set out merger and consolidation of specific institutions for the longer run; otherwise, a chronic funding problem from inefficient use of resources will persist. More importantly, the lack of will among higher education officials seems mirrored by that of many politicians who seem institutions as employment grounds and tax revenue spinners to local areas. As such, the plan represents only a starting point to a final solution that should stress more economy and greater boldness.

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