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Streamlining LA higher education needed

Legislators shouldn’t criticize hiking fees, or tuition, at Louisiana’s higher education institutions. These were needed, while streamlining the state’s overbuilt system must follow.

Last week, during budget presentations, some representatives expressed disapproval with Louisiana State University Baton Rouge’s decision to raise fees for this academic year. This came after lawmakers had constructed a standstill budget for this and the previous fiscal year, rather than inducing cuts as they had for the several years prior.

System Pres. F. King Alexander called the higher fees necessary in order to absorb hidden, mandated cost increases and to hand out pay raises. He said almost every state spent more per student, and every school did in the southern region. Further, the typical LSU faculty member makes over $10,000 fewer annually than the regional peer average.

While the populist instinct may lead legislators to rail against students having to pay more for their own educations, the fact remains that, even after having the largest increase (of 34 percent) in tuition and fees for senior institutions among the states over the past five years, Louisiana still lags in having students pay their fair share. That average still ranks just below the top half and several hundred dollars below the national mean. (That’s in-state; it ranks only 38th in average non-resident tuition and fees.)

In large part, this explains the low per-student spending number. Overall, the state rests third from the bottom in revenue per full-time equivalent student, $3,350 below the national average, or just 77 percent of that mean. But that’s because net tuition revenue and fees are only 79 percent of the national average, the ninth lowest among the states. As far as state taxpayer effort goes, Louisiana pretty much is in line, if not exceeds, the typical state. In terms of state support per $1,000 in personal income, Louisiana ranks 22nd and in per capita terms checks in at 30th position.

In other words, the state makes about an average effort given the fiscal resources of its citizens, meaning taxpayers aren’t shirking in providing for higher education. That’s also not far off from the truth for student effort, since the state ranks 41st in per capita income.

So, if Louisiana wants to increase the capacity and quality of its higher education delivery, it must look to make efficiency gains. The relative inefficiency of the system at present two statistics make obvious: in terms of proportion of state tax revenues allocated to higher education it ranks 23rd among the states and it has the 7th most senior institutions per capita, with the only states ranking higher on this metric close to it in population being Oklahoma and Washington.

This system with too few potential students chasing too many baccalaureate-and-above institutions that disproportionately receives taxpayer money relative to other state needs could use reconfiguration that cuts excess costs. Practically speaking, demoting some such institutions to community college status and merging others would accomplish this goal.

Legislators need to concentrate on completing that policy agenda, not sniping abut student costs when only now, after years of increases, does that amount begin to reflect students paying what they should.

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