Opinion: College for All

By Kaylyn Blosser

Presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is campaigning on making all public state universities free of tuition for all students. It sounds like a great idea – higher education, better jobs. It sounds like a good idea for Louisiana. According to the Census, in 2014, 27.8 percent of Louisiana residents 18 years and younger live below the poverty level. However, the state is looking at a $1.9 billion shortfall in FY 2016-2017. It is just not practical for Louisiana.

On May 19, 2015, Senator Sanders filed S.1373, the “College for All Act.” The bill will provide $47 billion in federal dollars to cover tuition and related fees for all the state public universities throughout the country. The bill does not cover the full $70 billion per year estimate needed to cover all tuition and fees. The bill uses a formula of 67 percent federal funds with state funds making up the remaining 33 percent. These funds are on top of the money states already set aside for their public universities.

Counting all public colleges and universities, Louisiana has 16 undergraduate schools. Tuition for Louisiana residents per semester ranges from $1,998 at Southern University – Shreveport to $4,833 at Louisiana State University – BR. Most residents are eligible for TOPS, which covers tuition for eight consecutive semesters. Students are responsible for the remaining fees. Senator Sanders’ plan could make the TOPS system obsolete since the bill requires the state to cover tuition.

Pros and Cons

The bill makes no mention of TOPS. So it could serve as a replacement. If the bill is used as a replacement for TOPS, Sanders’ bill could be beneficial for Louisiana if the money already allocated for TOPS would be given to the universities. The federal program would reduce the amount of money the state has to provide to pay for higher education for five years, which could help with Louisiana’s budget problems in the short term. As a replacement for TOS, Louisiana would only cover a third of public college and university tuition for the first five years of implementation. After that time, there would be a slow increase in the state fully-funding the program, allowing Louisiana to slowly take on the burden of providing free school. It would not single-handedly close the budget, but it would give the state time to determine long-term solutions for coverage.

Outside of the money issue, the Sanders’ bill could do a lot of good for Louisiana. It allows lower income students to be able to attend school. TOPS only covers tuition while the College for All Act will cover both tuition and fees. And since the Louisiana legislature passed a bill last year to allow the state universities to raise fees arbitrarily, schools could use the extra “fees” to raise revenue without raising tuition and disrupting TOPS. The bill will also freeze tuition so schools cannot continually raise tuition every year in attempts to get additional revenue from the state. The bill forbids universities from using the federal and state money that is allocated for tuition and fees to pay the salaries of high-level administrators.

There are quite a few problems with the bill from the get-go. To start with, the bill states that the states must pay for school on top of all other funding the state already provides. To me, this indicates that the TOPS money will still have to be given to the universities and then the state would cover tuition and fees. If Sanders’ bill requires the state to continue using the money already used for TOPS, the bill would be detrimental the state budget. At the least, the bill would force the state to provide free education for those who are residents of Louisiana but fall outside of TOPS. At the worst, the bill would split the money already allocated to TOPS to the universities as regular funding and not as TOPS money, forcing the state to pay for tuition on top of both the TOPS money and the regularly budgeted money.

Additionally, the bill does not specify for how long the tuition is available for students. TOPS only grants money for eight consecutive semesters. This means the state is now responsible for the tuition and fees for students in their fifth and sixth years. Because the bill contains a tuition freeze, the bill does not contain a way to adjust for inflation. With Louisiana universities’ tuitions low compared to most state tuition prices, the schools will begin to not be able to use tuition as revenue raisers to fund new teachers and courses.

Finally, the bill does not provide any incentive to maintain grades. Though TOPS standards are arguably low, there is still some standard to maintain. If students know they will have free tuition for the entirety of their undergraduate career without needing to maintain a specific grade point, at least, some students will not measure up.