Earlier this month, Rhode Island became the fourth state in the nation to offer free tuition for community colleges.
It’s news you probably overlooked. But this news should come as a wake-up call for Louisiana, whose own economic development statistics show that nearly half of the jobs coming to this state over the next few years require training at or above a two-year degree past high school. (Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota are the other three free tuition community college states.)
Nationally, the cost of community college is going down. Tuitions for the schools in Louisiana are not, says Terrence Ginn, who, as deputy commissioner for Finance and Administration, is this state’s chief guru for higher education finances.
“We are having to charge our students a great deal of money to get that certification. That’s not helping to fuel our workforce needs,” Ginn said in a recent interview. “That is a direct effect of not having enough state investment in higher education.”
He points to stats collected by the Southern Regional Education Board.
Louisiana, according to the latest SREB report, charges state residents an average $3,292 for community college tuition. That’s slightly below the national average of $3,312 but above the $3,137 Southern average. More directly, Louisiana’s average community college costs are about 40 percent higher than neighboring Mississippi, at $2,322, and Texas, at $2,397. Arkansas charges an average $3,003.
But making community colleges tuition-free likely would face withering political opposition in a state as red as Louisiana.
Nine years ago, the state bought into the conservative philosophy that views post-secondary students as consumers, therefore more responsible than taxpayers for paying for their own education. Consequently, the Jindal administration — with legislative approval —slashed state appropriations to higher education more than any other state in the nation.
Average tuition prices nationally have risen 440 percent over the past 25 years, which is more than health care experienced. Many argue that the institutions needed to be more accountable and less reliant on taxpayer dollars. These days most Louisiana students and their families pay about 70 percent of the costs for the education. In 2007, that was about what state government paid to run higher education.
The free tuition faction largely comes from Democrats who argue that post-secondary education is the most cost-effective route for young people to lift themselves up and become productive, tax-paying members of society. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton made those points in their presidential bids, which automatically disqualifies the idea in the minds of many Louisiana conservative voters.
Besides, Louisiana has its own version of free tuition, TOPS.
The grants pay in-state public college and university tuition for Louisiana high school students who take a slate of college-prep courses, maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and score more than 20 out of 36 points possible on the standardized national ACT exam required for admittance to most colleges and universities. Legislators agreed to appropriate the $300 million or so to fully fund the politically popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students for the fiscal year that began July 1.
Though a handful of students use TOPS for their educations at the Louisiana Community & Technical College System, nine dollars of every $10 goes to students enrolled at the state’s 14 public universities. Only about 30 percent — 44,756 of the 150,189 students enrolled last fall in public four-year institutions — received the free tuition offered by TOPS. The rest paid out of pocket.
In the fall of 2016, a total 61,059 students enrolled in the 15 community colleges run by LCTCS. Nearly every one of those students used their own money or loans or various grants to pay for their education.
“Look,” said Commissioner of Higher Education Joe Rallo in a recent interview, “if you funded every student who is currently in the two-year programs, it would cost $191 million, basically, to make it tuition free.
“So it’s a very interesting question. If it’s the graduates of the two-year programs that are basically fueling our economy, then is the $300 million being spent on TOPS the best use of our money?” Rallo posited.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Slidell Republican who sponsored legislation requiring Rallo to deliver the Legislature a plan of action, isn’t really sure the state can afford to fund TOPS as well as provide a free education at the community colleges.
“I don’t think we can do both, but if it means taking money away from the four-year schools, I don’t support that,” she said.
“My job is to ask some questions and allow the Legislature to have some options,” Rallo said. “It is important for me to raise the question.”
Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.