By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – When thousands of Louisiana college students return to classes this week, many of them face another round of boosted costs, as the price tag for getting a degree creeps ever higher.
Two of Louisiana’s four public college systems – the LSU and Southern University systems – enacted campus-wide fee hikes of up to 5 percent on their students. The ever-increasing fee charges aren’t covered by the state’s TOPS tuition aid program.
Full-time students on LSU’s main campus in Baton Rouge are paying $282 more a semester. On Southern’s campus in Baton Rouge, full-time undergraduates have to pony up an extra $217 per semester. At Southern University at New Orleans, they’re paying $169 a semester more. Students are facing higher charges at LSU’s campuses in Alexandria, Shreveport and Eunice, too.
The decision stunned some state lawmakers who thought students would be spared such increases after higher education was shielded from state financing cuts.
“It was a shocker, certainly,” said House Speaker Taylor Barras, a New Iberia Republican. “I was quite surprised to see how quickly the decision was made to raise fees. Quite frankly, that was disappointing.”
After three special sessions this year, lawmakers reached a deal to renew 0.45 percent of an expiring 1 percent state sales tax to close much of a looming budget gap and stave off hefty cuts in the 2018-19 year. Concern about steep cuts to public colleges and the TOPS program was a driving force to help collect the votes needed to pass the tax. Higher education officials were prominent in the Louisiana Capitol during debate.
Barras said he heard from many lawmakers displeased when the LSU Board of Supervisors raised fees only days after that tax deal was done. Southern University’s governing board followed a week later.
Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, showed up at the Southern board meeting to object to the move, saying lawmakers who supported the sales tax didn’t expect universities to still raise costs on students.
“It pains me that we are having this less than three weeks after we voted,” James said.
The University of Louisiana System, the largest of the state’s university systems, didn’t raise fees on students at its nine campuses after the tax vote.
“We sincerely appreciate the Legislature’s work to provide stable funding this year, and our member institutions made a conscious decision not to propose any fee increases for the fall semester,” UL System spokeswoman Cami Geisman said in a statement.
However, she noted the system management board might consider “a minor increase” in the spring.
The Louisiana Community and Technical College System didn’t do system-wide mandatory fee hikes. But individual, program-specific fees were raised, such as charges for cosmetology courses, aviation maintenance courses, and welding students on certain campuses.
To defend increased charges, college leaders point out campuses took deep and repeated state financing cuts over nearly a decade, and tuition and fee hikes haven’t fully offset the slashing. They say while campuses are digging out from prior cuts, they’re coping with mandated increases in health care, retirement and insurance costs and competing to hold onto faculty.
“For the last few years, we’ve literally been in a survival mode,” Southern University President-Chancellor Ray Belton said. “These standstill budgets do not hold us whole.”
LSU board member Blake Chatelain said: “Costs are rising every year. Faculty salaries are 10 percent below peer. Expenditures per student are significantly below peer.”
LSU’s boosted charges on students, which also covers attendees of the law and veterinary schools, will raise nearly $17 million, most of that for the main campus. Southern’s fee increases, also hitting students at the law school and two-year school in Shreveport, are estimated to generate $4 million.
A small slice of the money will increase need-based financial aid for students.
Barras worried: “Can we expect that every year there will be a fee increase on students?”
That’s possible for at least a little while longer. While Louisiana’s public college systems don’t have authority from lawmakers to raise tuition rates, lawmakers have given them the ability to set and modify their own fees within certain parameters until mid-2020.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte
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