Task force suggests changes to tuition, TOPS

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers should give up their authority to control college tuition costs and put limits on the state’s free college tuition program called TOPS, a group studying higher education funding recommended Wednesday.
Suggestions from the Tuition Task Force — a study group of higher education leaders and students assembled by lawmakers — will be submitted to the Legislature for consideration in the next regular session that begins in March.
But the ideas aren’t new, and many of them have been rejected by the Legislature in prior years. Consequently, it’s unclear if lawmakers will take a new look at them or shelve the proposals as they have in other legislative sessions.
“I do believe that the board correctly captured the issues and made recommendations, and of course, several of those recommendations mirrored previous iterations of tuition studies that were done over the last decade,” said Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell.
House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, has urged higher education officials to develop new ideas for financing Louisiana’s public college campuses after six years of budget cuts. Those reductions have stripped nearly $700 million in state funding from higher education since 2008.
Tuition increases on students have offset only about two-thirds of the losses. Campuses have closed the remaining gap by cutting classes, shrinking faculty and staff and eliminating programs.
Phillip Rozeman, a task force member representing the business community, said since lawmakers and the governor have shifted higher education’s funding model to rely more heavily on tuition, college systems should get more autonomy to decide their fee structures.
The Tuition Task Force was the third study commission created by lawmakers to look at higher education financing issues since 2009. It included 23 members, mostly higher education officials, but also 10 high school and college students.
“It may not necessarily result in legislation this (session), but I do believe it puts this idea on their radar for future consideration,” Purcell said.
In the report approved Wednesday, the panel suggested that:
— TOPS awards should be a flat amount not tied to the price of tuition, but instead tied to an annual inflationary index, so lawmakers have some means to control the price tag of a program expected to cost $220 million this budget year.
—Lawmakers consider raising the education standards required for high school students to receive a TOPS award and consider establishing a lower award amount for freshmen that increases the longer they stay in college.
—More money should be directed to the state’s need-based aid program for college students, called the GO Grant program, which received $26 million this year.
—Lawmakers remove the requirement that tuition increases get a two-thirds vote from the Legislature before they can be enacted, instead leaving it to the university system management boards to set tuition rates.
—Campuses be allowed to charge different tuition rates for high-cost academic programs.
—The governor and lawmakers stop shrinking state funding to higher education by the same amount that tuition increases generate for the campuses.

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