Voters to state lawmakers wanting to abandon higher education: Not so fast

By Robert Mann

If there was an unequivocal message in the Nov. 8 election returns in Louisiana, it was that voters are tired of rising college costs. They rejected — 57 percent to 43 percent — a proposed constitutional amendment to give the state’s higher education governing boards unfettered authority over tuition. Louisiana colleges and universities will still need a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to hike tuition.

A few observations after studying the returns:

Voters do not trust the higher education boards to set tuition rates, no doubt fearing that tuition would skyrocket with no legislative control over prices. It’s not likely that LSU and other institutions would have gouged students. But voters apparently want a check on the boards, especially given the Legislature’s recent abandonment of higher education and the resulting higher tuition and fees.

Voters seemed to say lawmakers still have a role to play in funding higher education, including controlling tuition costs. Lawmakers were hoping to jettison this responsibility. What better way to “solve” the state’s higher education funding crisis than to turn over almost everything to the boards? Then, next time a college president showed up asking for more state money, legislators could dismiss him or her, saying, “We gave you all the authority you wanted to generate revenue. We’re done with increasing funds for universities. Cut your budgets or raise your tuition, but leave us alone.”

Now, that conversation is less likely to occur. Like it or not, the Legislature remains integral to the process of funding Louisiana higher education. It can take the lead and produce additional appropriations, approve modest tuition increases or demand structural reforms — or some combination of all three. It cannot say, however, that it has no responsibility in this area.

The amendment’s failure does not mean an end to tuition increases. Fees, not subject to legislative approval, will continue to rise. And tuition costs will continue their slow, steady upward climb. As they have in the past, lawmakers are likely to grant the higher education boards limited authority to increase tuition.

This amendment might have passed easily several years ago before lawmakers began to dismantle TOPS, the state‘s tuition assistance program.Last year, legislators decoupled TOPS from tuition, meaning it might not cover the full price of tuition. Sure enough, this year lawmakers cut the program’s funding by 30 percent and then pushed back all the reductions to the spring 2017 semester, meaning that most TOPS students will see a one-time, staggering 60 percent reduction in tuition support in January.

That reckless legislative budget maneuver undoubtedly created much ill will and suspicion among voters already unhappy with lawmakers’ mishandling of higher education. Undermining TOPS backfired.

Continue reading this on NOLA.com at this link.

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