Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Legislature considers giving colleges more financial independence

by BIZ Magazine

BY: PIPER HUTCHINSON – Louisiana Illuminator

The LSU Library sits in the middle of campus on Monday, March 20, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La. (Matthew Perschall for Louisiana Illuminator)

Louisiana’s colleges and universities could soon have more control over tuition, fees and maintenance projects under bills the Legislature will consider.

The proposals seek to give higher education institutions more financial independence from the Legislature, whose members currently have final say on what they can charge students to attend and how they spend campus construction dollars

House Bill 940 by Rep. Chris Turner, R-Ruston, would allow schools to get money for some maintenance work without going through the annual legislative process to set aside funds for state projects. Currently, most deferred maintenance projects on college campuses have to go through the capital outlay process. Each school submits their new building projects and fix-it list to lawmakers, who get final say in what gets funded.

Turner said higher education leaders have asked instead for a set amount of money annually, which they could then decide how to spend themselves. This would prevent long-needed maintenance projects from filling up House Bill 2, the annual capital outlay bill, he said.

Turner’s bill sets up a 10-year program through which the Legislature would appropriate up to $1.7 billion dollars, approximately equal to the current deferred maintenance backlog for all four state higher education systems, excluding those at university hospitals, which could be paid for with federal dollars.

Of that amount, the Southern University System would be allocated $153 million, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System would get $253 million, the University of Louisiana System would receive $523 million and $752 million would be set aside for the LSU System.

“These campuses, hopefully over the next seven to 10 years, can work on their projects and fix their deferred maintenance so we’re just not building buildings we cannot take care of,” Turner said in an interview.

The nearly $2 billion deferred maintenance backlog presents a huge problem on university campuses. Poor infrastructure manifests in Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues, leaky libraries, disruptions in laboratories and myriad problems that impact student life, working conditions and faculty research.

Turner said addressing the deferred maintenance backlog is an important tool for recruiting and retaining students.

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A bill giving schools more control over tuition is also being billed as a measure to keep universities competitive. For years, schools have sought the freedom to set their own tuition. Currently, such a change requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

House Bill 862 by Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, would allow boards for the four university systems to set differential tuition for high-cost programs. Differential tuition is a tiered amount charged on top of base tuition for more expensive academic programs, such as lab-heavy programs in science or engineering.

Hughes’ bill allows boards to set differential tuition for any graduate, professional or specialized program as well as any undergraduate program the Board of Regents, the state oversight board for all higher education, identifies as “high-cost.”

“When you look at the cost of an engineering program, for example, faculty commands … higher pay, equipment is very expensive. There’s a very high cost of running those programs, and we need to ensure that the universities have the tools needed to remain competitive in those programs,” Hughes told the llluminator.

Hughes’ bill would not allow the systems to raise differential tuition more than 10% per year.

His bill also gives systems control over mandatory fees for any program. Tuition and fees at Louisiana universities increased drastically during the 2010s, when the burden to finance higher education was shifted from the state to students.

Hughes said he didn’t believe the bill would make college unaffordable, but rather would offer schools more flexibility. He pointed out his proposal would also allow schools to decrease tuition and fees without limitations.

The bill also requires schools to set up a waiver process for students with financial hardships.

The Hughes and Turner measures await a hearing in the House Committee on Education.

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