Analysis: College Costs Growing, With TOPS Covering Less

BATON ROUGE (AP) — As college students begin to return to class across Louisiana's public college campuses this week, many of them are likely experiencing a bit of sticker shock.

         The price tag for classes continues to cost more and more with tuition and fee increases. And this year comes with a new twist as the TOPS program no longer covers the full cost of tuition at a public college, with a small hit taking hold this fall and the larger hit coming in the spring semester.

         In June, Gov. John Bel Edwards asked college leaders for "zero or minimal increases" in tuition, noting the schools received a nearly standstill budget in the current 2016-17 financial year. Louisiana's college systems didn't pay much attention to the governor's request.

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         Some schools skipped the tuition hikes — only to raise other fees, many by sizable amounts. Some campuses, like LSU's main campus in Baton Rouge, hit students with a double whammy, both larger tuition costs and higher fees.

         A full-time, in-state undergraduate student at LSU paid more than $4,800 per semester in tuition and fees last year. As students move in this week on campus, that price tag has grown to around $5,400 a semester, due to a nearly 5 percent tuition increase and other fees.

         LSU System President F. King Alexander cited continued growth in retirement and insurance costs and concerns the campus may take a cut because of state budget uncertainty. In a letter to the university system board, Alexander said he was trying to strike "an appropriate balance between affordability and quality."

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         Other LSU campuses had increases as well, a nearly 4 percent tuition hike in Alexandria for in-state undergraduates and about a 2.6 percent tuition increase in Shreveport. Students in Alexandria also face a new "student excellence fee," and those in Shreveport have a larger "student success center fee" and a new "security and safety fee."

         Among the nine campuses of the University of Louisiana System, only students at McNeese State University in Lake Charles are escaping tuition and fee increases.

         The University of Louisiana at Monroe is boosting its undergraduate tuition by $304 for the 2016-17 school year, while undergraduate students at Southeastern Louisiana University who start classes this week will be paying $374 more across the two semesters.

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         Varying fees are going up at ULM — and at Grambling State University, Louisiana Tech University, Nicholls State University, Northwestern State University, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the University of New Orleans.

         Students in the Southern University System are avoiding tuition increases, but face fee hikes of as much as $367 per semester.

         The Louisiana Community and Technical College System decided for the first time in five years not to bump up tuition rates. But two new fees were enacted, for students in programs delivered in a compressed time frame to fill high-demand jobs and students who take hefty course loads.

         Any student at a community or technical college campus who takes 16 hours or more each semester will pay a new per-hour fee for each credit hour at 16 or above: $104 per hour at a technical college campus and $151 at a community college. The LCTCS System stressed that fewer than 10 percent reach that credit hour mark.

         For more than 50,000 college students, they've been able to avoid taking the hit of increased tuition costs in past years — though they've had to pay fee hikes — because the state's TOPS college program picked up the tab for tuition.

         That is, until now.

         Because of budget cuts, TOPS students will get 93 percent of tuition paid in the fall and less than 48 percent of tuition covered in the spring. It's questionable whether TOPS will ever again fully cover a student's tuition, a rude awakening for students banking on the program.

         The cut also comes as voters this fall will be asked to consider a constitutional amendment to let college systems raise their own tuition and fees without needing support from state lawmakers.

         That might be a tough sell to parents and students already bristling from paying more out of pocket.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte



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