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Reform LA higher education before frisking taxpayers

You can whine about a problem or get busy trying to solve it. Louisiana State University’s leadership prefers the former approach while some students affected by reductions in Taylor Opportunity Program for Students awards have opted for the latter.

When appearing earlier this month in front of the House Appropriations Committee as part of its budget vetting, System Pres. F. King Alexander moaned about how that cut, which causes in the case of LSU a couple of thousand fewer dollars made available for each student to pay his tuition, might discourage LSU students in the spring. He used this as another example to argue that taxpayers must fork over more to higher education, who collectively want $100 million more in general fund money and $89 million put into TOPS to allow it to pay at 100 percent again.

That view ignores the facts that, when considering the per capita income of Louisiana and its relative ranking to other states (34th), its average tuition and fees for senior institution (29th – but this doesn’t include TOPS that would lower its placement several positions even if less than half-funded), and state support per full-time enrollee (33rd), these balance pretty well. While taxpayer ability to pay seems fairly maximized, if anything students could pay more.

The Legislature controls that policy decision, given that voters unwisely turned down a constitutional amendment that would have shifted that to higher education, explaining why King favored the backdoor method of restoring TOPS funding. But heavy reliance on that – about three-quarters of LSU’s Baton Rouge student body qualifies for TOPS – with this cushion not only has made LSU lazy about cost efficiency but also most susceptible to changes in this indirect form of state support.

In a sense, a continued funding of TOPS at less than fully forces LSU to join the club of all other state schools, who have much smaller proportions (some almost zero) of student populations receiving awards. When taxpayer subsidies began declining annually years ago, necessitating tuition increases, they had to start performing more efficiently and work smarter to retain students, whereas LSU enjoyed a buffer.

Now, ironically, the shoe is on the other foot. With LSU’s highest tuition rates in the state now no longer shielded for many, some students have started opting for schools closer to home to save on living expenses and tuition. Alexander suspects that might have something to do with lower spring enrollment numbers (although typically fewer students show in the spring as opposed to fall semesters).

And students continue to find other ways to cope. In the wake of TOPS cuts, National Guard enlistments have surged, although that does not help the state gather revenue as it waives tuition (but not fees) entirely for these individuals.

Keep in mind that higher education leaders have warned about a falling sky now for a decade, while per credit hour spending on higher education (in the face of dramatically higher tuition increases student credit hour production actually rose 2.5 percent through 2015) over that period (using SCH data through fiscal year 2016) has declined less than a percentage point a year on average. Yet they continue to issue the same dire predictions.

However, even with small declination, the impact magnifies because of the inherent inefficiency in Louisiana’s system of higher education, with too many schools chasing too few students relative to other states. To mitigate negative impacts of reduced funding, higher education must start by reforming the system through mergers, closures, and reclassifications before asking taxpayers to pony up more.

In light of the TOPS partial funding, students have buckled down and taken responsibility for their own fates. It looks as if they could teach the teachers on this issue.

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