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Lawmakers asked to give up tuition-setting power

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Colleges and universities will again ask lawmakers to relinquish their tuition-setting authority, as budget cuts have repeatedly stripped financial resources from the schools, Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said Tuesday.

Purcell told the joint House and Senate education committee that he will ask the Legislature to let the higher education management boards set their own tuition, so the schools can move closer to the rates charged by their peers in the South.

Lawmakers gave a cool reception to the proposal, which they will consider in the session that begins in April.

"I'm not going to be able to continue to support tuition increases. I just can't," said Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard, an independent from Thibodaux who said Louisiana has too many four-year universities.

Committee members raised questions about whether students can afford continued cost increase, whether schools are efficiently spending their money and whether higher tuition rates only lead to further cuts in state financing for the schools that offset the benefit.

The change would require support from two-thirds of lawmakers. Previous attempts by college leaders to take charge of the rates have failed.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers have cut annual state general funding on higher education by $625 million since 2008, Purcell said. He said tuition has increased $331 million during that time.

Meanwhile, Purcell said schools have increased class sizes, cut faculty and reduced student services and programs, so students are paying more while getting fewer offerings on campus.

Lawmakers gave the schools limited ability to raise tuition in recent years, but with caps that haven't kept up with the cuts or other universities in the region. Louisiana's public colleges have been allowed to boost tuition by up to 10 percent per year, if they meet certain performance standards under a 2010 law called the GRAD Act.

Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, said he voted for the law because he thought students would receive an improved product. Instead, he said Jindal and lawmakers have then cut state funding further, so the higher tuition for students is used as an offset for state spending on campuses, in essence shifting costs to students and their families.

"Given that pattern, how do we help you if we increase tuition again?" Edwards asked Purcell.

Purcell said colleges and universities could better cope with the financial situation if they could feel confident they'll get a consistent amount of money from the state, so tuition increases can be used to improve student services and programs.

Louisiana is in the bottom two or three of Southern states in both state funding for public higher education and tuition rates, he said.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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