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BATON ROUGE, La.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's push for state lawmakers to give up their authority over public college tuition increases, if the schools improve their performance, cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday.
But the bill's sponsor acknowledges the road to final legislative passage will be tough. It would require support from two-thirds of the House and Senate to reach Jindal's desk.
The measure, called the Louisiana GRAD Act, would let schools substantially raise what they charge their students if the colleges meet certain performance standards, including improved graduation rates and better job skills preparation.
"I really believe we will be doing something historic if this bill makes it through the entire process," said House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, sponsor of the proposal.
"It's something where the taxpayers and citizens of this state desire greater accountability, greater performance out of our systems, and it's absolutely going to produce that over time," he said.
The House Education Committee approved the bill Thursday without objection, but that is expected to be the last easy step for the proposal. It heads next to the House's budget committee, where it is expected to face a rougher hearing from lawmakers who have complained repeatedly about the performance of state colleges and universities.
Under the bill, colleges would have to increase admission standards, improve graduation rates, eliminate programs with few graduates and improve their efforts in getting students into jobs. Remedial classes would disappear at four-year schools, along with most associate degree programs, in an effort to steer students seeking those courses to less expensive community colleges. Online courses would have to be expanded.
In exchange, schools could raise their tuition by up to 10 percent a year until they reach the average of similar schools in the South. After that, they could boost tuition by up to 5 percent annually or an amount equal to the growth in a national higher education price index, whichever is greater. Tuition increases could begin in the 2012-13 school year, Tucker said.
The colleges also would get more financial flexibility from the state for travel regulations and supply purchases.
Currently, campuses need approval from two-thirds of state lawmakers before they can raise tuition and fees, making Louisiana the only state in the nation that requires such a hefty vote. Lawmakers recently did give college governing boards the ability to raise tuition annually up to 5 percent, authority that runs out in two years.
But there was disagreement Thursday about whether a series of changes to the bill would make it impossible for schools to raise their tuition -- or require so many benchmarks to be reached upfront that the tuition increases would be years away.
Tucker said he wants to make sure colleges are improving before they can raise tuition.
Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, countered that he wanted to give relief to the schools, which have had several rounds of budget cuts in the last few years, without creating obstacles that are too difficult to overcome.
"This is a delicate balance between the carrot and the stick," Tucker said.
Haggling was expected to continue about how much improvement schools must show -- and when they must show it -- to get the ability to hike tuition.
The bill provides for voluntary six-year agreements with colleges, with performance measures reviewed annually by the state Board of Regents, which governs public higher education in Louisiana.