JR Ball: The value of higher education at LSU

During a week where New York University made international headlines by announcing a tuition-free medical school, LSU took the bold move of raising its fees … again.

Greeting students arriving on Louisiana’s flagship campus this month was a $282 fee hike, bringing the annual tuition-and-fee tab for an in-state student to $11,950. Factor in room, board and an assortment of other costs, and, says LSU, today’s all-in number for a year of loving purple and living gold is $30,360.

In New York and elsewhere in America, educators are fretting about the crushing debt that comes with earning a college degree. Here, in Louisiana—a state still relying on smoke, mirrors and temporary taxes to remain solvent—we’re told a tuition-free college education is an entitlement we can no longer afford.

Even if flush with taxpayer cash, it might not matter given the decision by former Gov. Bobby Jindal and his legislative friends to shift the funding of higher education away from state government and toward tuition-paying students and their families.

Since Jindal took office in 2008, tuition and fees at LSU have soared 155%, from $4,689 to the current $11,950. That’s more, according to CollegeBoard.org, than the cost of the University of Texas, North Carolina, Florida and Alabama.

No flagship institution in America has hiked tuition and fees over the past five years at a higher rate than LSU—and it’s not even close.

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It was during this seismic funding shift that TOPS became a financial liability to the state. The program, which covers tuition for your average high school graduate—and a bit more for the higher achievers—now costs the state nearly $300 million per year. That, we’re told, is something we can’t afford in a state budget pushing $30 billion.

Yet, even if TOPS were to cease being a pawn in the philosophical chess game between our current governor, John Bel Edwards, and House Republicans, and even if the program was fully funded, tuition is becoming a smaller and smaller chunk of the LSU fee bill.

That’s because LSU can’t raise tuition without legislative approval. Rather than go through that hassle—and the impact on TOPS—it’s much easier to simply hike fees.

Tuition for a full-time, in-state student taking 15 hours per semester at LSU will cost $8,047 this academic year. That’s roughly 27% of the $30,360 LSU says it will take to attend the Ole War Skule. In other words, there’s $22,314 worth of other expenses that have zero to do with TOPS.

So even if there’s a miracle and 1) the TOPS program remains as is, 2) your child maintains TOPS eligibility, 3) fees and other costs don’t increase and 4) an undergraduate degree is earned in four years, that LSU education will cost $89,252 above tuition.

Some can cover that cost out-of-pocket. For everyone else, get in line for a loan.

To be fair, the debt load carried by a typical LSU graduate—$24,933 or $26,588 or $29,915—depending on which online site you believe—is in the middle of the pack by national standards. Still, it’s worth noting the amount of debt a graduate leaves LSU with is increasing each year—and at a rate above inflation.

This isn’t just an LSU problem. It’s an issue at every decent university in America.

New York Times: Student debt problem worse than imagined

All of which raises some questions:

At what point do students start doing the math on the cost of a degree versus expected employment income and determine a college degree, in some fields, isn’t worth it?

When will universities abandon the current one-size-fits-all tuition model and start charging based on the value—and cost—of a particular degree?

More importantly, how can we declare education is the key to solving Louisiana’s embarrassing poverty problem while simultaneously embracing a user-financing model that either makes college unaffordable or leaves those who graduate with massive debt?

And, finally, when will Louisiana value higher education?

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