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Editorial: Those closest to colleges should decide tuition

Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 6:38 PM

Louisiana’s state universities ought to control what they charge students for tuition.

Jim Purcell, state commissioner of Higher Education, made that pitch before state lawmakers in Baton Rouge this week, but met a tepid response. Higher education will face an uphill struggle in making that case before the full Legislature come April, but it ought to try.

Only in Louisiana do lawmakers have such imposing control over college tuition. What do other states know that we don’t?

They likely know lawmakers lack the political will to charge consumers a reasonable price for a college degree when those consumers vote. They likely know lawmakers will not limit the number of state campuses to what the state can afford. Thus, Louisiana has too many four-year campuses in a state where public campus tuition is second-lowest in the Southeast. Wonder why we struggle with funding higher ed?

Louisiana is not the only state grappling with tuition. Tuition increased 4.8 percent around the country last year, which outpaces the rise in the cost of living.

Within limits, tuition was raised in Louisiana, too, but not nearly enough to offset cuts the state has made of late to higher education budgets. Purcell told lawmakers that while state campuses reaped about $331 million in additional tuition money over the past four years, the state cut $625 million from the higher education budgets. Because of constitutional restrictions, higher education is in the unenviable position of being one of two spending areas in which the state is allowed to cut its budget. So what is a campus to do?

One thing is to set its own tuition, charging students tuition that more accurately reflects the cost of educating students. For example, for college majors that cost more to offer and where graduates on average earn more pay, campuses should charge more. Campus administrators themselves — they are closer to the numbers and have oversight from state boards — ought to impose reasonable tuition based on that knowledge.

Important, too, is that tuition should be set such that students understand and appreciate the value of their degree. The Governor’s Office reports that graduation has risen to 46 percent since 2008, up 4 percent. That’s far too many students that fail to complete. Set the tuition bar higher, and some students who are academically unprepared for college or unwilling to work hard in college may never start.

College administrators at state universities are unlikely to price their campuses beyond the reach of Louisiana students. Charge too much at McNeese State, for example, and students may bolt for Lafayette or Beaumont, Texas for attractive college options.

Better to reject central government control in Baton Rouge, and let those closest to the colleges decide tuition.

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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Ken Stickney, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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