What began as a session promising to accomplish major strides in bring Louisiana higher education into the 21st century, and perhaps set up even more beneficial future change, instead looks to have come completely undone.
The House’s refusal to send SB 155 by state Sen. Jack Donahue to the voters to amend the Constitution to get the Legislature out of the tuition-setting business certainly erases a major reform tool in higher education policy. This means that not only does the Legislature, contrary to the practice in almost every state where higher education systems make tuition and fee decisions without interference, continues to have a veto power over these kinds of decisions, but also it need muster only a third or more of the members of one chamber to block any of these, the only state where a legislative supermajority must approve of these increases.
It’s a horrible policy that has led to the inappropriately low pricing of tuition – only 38th highest for baccalaureate-and-above institutions in a state that ranks 30th in per capita income – and thereby overreliance on taxpayers to subsidize it. Too many lawmakers enjoy claiming they prevent the cost of higher education from being too high to those who benefit directly from it by having this veto in place to provide cover, while spreading out the costs among taxpayers who don’t have as intense feelings about the issue as do the beneficiaries (who typically are significantly wealthier than the mass public thereby better able to mobilize lobbying resources to magnify their persuasive abilities). If Louisiana higher education ever has a chance of becoming efficient in delivery – both by the process and in its structure, at present wildly overbuilt at the top – it needs greater discipline induced by leaning less on taxpayers and more on its own resources, and this amendment could have provided that.
Worse, another worthy bill, Donahue’s SB 48, still has an undetermined fate. That sets payments from the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students for tuition at next year’s levels (which can be raised by legislative action), creates a maximum figure to be allocated in a given year computed by the levels times the number of qualifying students, where the fact that tuition higher than the levels means less money will be available for distribution than there are qualifying students means the least qualified students will not receive an award. Not only does this introduce cost controls but it also raises qualification standards in essence to make it more a scholarship and less an entitlement, reduces the likelihood that awardees will disqualify themselves through subsequent poor academic performance (as a third end up doing) as the weaker ones will not qualify thereby saving taxpayer dollars, and it motivates higher performance in high school in order to receive an award bringing better taxpayer value in that area.
SB 48 already has passed both chambers on its way to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has remained wary of the bill as he interprets it as placing a cap on TOPS despite the legislative action provision. Even as significant interest group and legislative majorities have come to back the bill, Jindal may act against it. If that happens, basically zero progress will have occurred to bring rationality to the state’s higher education policy this session, with another helpful bill, SB 175 by state Sen. Conrad Appel that would produce information on more efficient organization of higher education never leaving the starting gate. Yet worse of all, the problem of misallocation of fiscal resources could compound with state Rep. Walt Leger’s HB 323, which essentially would amend the Constitution to lock in the existing taxpayer subsidy going to higher education, one of the highest among the states. Fortunately, the Senate appears to have sidetracked that measure for the session.
About the only good thing with the House’s disregard of SB 155 is that it had been amended with a poison pill provision that would have allowed systems to have control over admission standards, not only confusing the roles of the already-duplicative separate systems relative to the Board of Regents but also inviting more waste of taxpayer resources by allowing students admission to senior institutions that lower these standards where most would fail instead of having them go to community colleges where they would have a better chance of success and potentially trigger a race to the bottom in delivery of quality education in order to prevent mass flunking out. It was thought that the pill was necessary to gain enough support for its passage but it may have had the effect of deterring support.
Regardless, if SB 48 goes down by veto, the session will compute to a total loss for making higher education better and lightening its burden on the citizenry. Special interests will win while the state will struggle on, paying unnecessarily for a bloated, inefficient system that causes unnecessary tax increases and reductions in needed services in other areas. If so, one only can hope that a new governor and Legislature next year will bring greater urgency to this task to prevent further fiscal depletion and educational mediocrity.