“Thousands of People… Come July 1… Gonna Be Walking the Streets, Unemployed”

Today, the Louisiana Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee considered SB155, one of several bills this session that proposes to take tuition-setting authority out of the hands of the legislature. While this is not controversial in a national perspective–Louisiana is one of the few states where its legislature approves tuition increases, and the only one requiring two-thirds legislative approval–this is an extremely touchy subject this year. Since Bobby Jindal took office, tuition rates have risen by as much as 90% at our state colleges and universities. However, as the legislative session progresses, higher education is being pushed toward one of two evils–close many of its institutions including effectively reducing the flagship to a mere shell, or make students make up the difference in tuition.

And not just some of the difference. Just about all of it. Because the legislature doesn’t have any other solid solutions to close the $1.6 (really $1.8) billion dollar budget gap.

But this hearing covered much, much more than just tuition. Here was the outline of Plan B–indeed, what seems to be the only plan–to salvage higher education. And I say salvage, not save, on purpose.

Because the alternative is worse than anyone has been willing to say out loud, but has been afraid was really true. What Moody’s and Standard and Poors know, but our higher ed leaders have kept close to the chest, came out on mic today.

Sen. Jack Donahue, who sponsored the bill, was asked how much revenue would be increased by raising tuition rates– surprisingly, he said that tuition would not “go up a whole lot” and that if the budget cuts went through, departments and whole universities would close instead. Initially, he completely hedged the question.

But later, Sen. Robert Adley laid out in starker terms than any campus or system head–yes, including F. King Alexander–what the implications are for higher education if they cannot make up the difference in funding through tuition. He admitted that institutions have already been cut to the “degree where they are largely operating off of tuition,” and then laid out what higher education is really facing on July 1 if this bill, or something like it, doesn’t pass:

We’ve had massive – what I call tax increases – in tuition. But we don’t have any choice – if you’re going to take away all the state general fund, the committee… has to give them the autonomy to do what they’re going to do… We aren’t the only state to do this… Penn State has done this, North Carolina has done this… If we’re unwilling to do the things to give them the money to operate we’ve got to give them autonomy… We have given away so much, and taken away state general funds from everybody else… I don’t think this committee has any other choice but to move your legislation… Jack, it’s not about… schools closing… it’s about thousands of people that come July 1… I’m telling you, if we don’t find some way to fix this… I’m telling you, the med school’s going to close, the universities are going to close, and those jobs, lots of jobs, people gonna be walking the streets, unemployed, that’s what’s fixing to happen if we don’t do something in the next five weeks.

And even later in the session Adler said to Commissioner Joseph Rallo, “If when we leave here this session, if you don’t find the dollars–and it appears we’re probably not… the bill came as a measure to help you stabilize some of these universities financially.”

So based on this committee meeting, along with the legislature overall failing to close the $1.6 billion budget hole, here is what I am afraid is the plan. Because the legislature doesn’t have any other plan.

One of these bills–SB155, or one of the others, will pass. The bill capping TOPS (although Sen. Donahue insisted it was really a “baseline” for TOPS) has already passed through committee, which Sen. Adler also hoped out loud Jindal would sign because otherwise this whole Plan B falls apart.

And then based on the fact that the admission criteria became a huge topic of discussion today, either this amended bill, or one of the others dealing with similar issues, will negate the prohibition in GRAD Act against teaching developmental education in the universities, effectively allowing the admission standards to be relaxed.

This is because there is another market of students who can also help fund higher education. The students we have been denying admission to since the admission criteria first took effect at the statewide universities in 2012, and the regionals in fall 2014. And who haven’t necessarily gone to our community colleges. As Sen. JP Morrell stated anecdotally in committee, and which my own research supports, many of these students have not gone to any of our state colleges or universities.

I have vehemently opposed GRAD Act from the day it was first proposed. I have been fighting it for five years. And I was fighting Bobby Jindal’s higher education policies for longer than that, when GRAD Act was just a gleam in the Tucker Commission’s eye. All someone had to do is say “GRAD Act” and they risked getting the tirade. It is an evil, evil law. I have especially opposed the GRAD Act linked admission criteria–which leave no market at all for the regional institutions, and which keep students out of college rather than in college.

But barring anyone willing to face off against Governor Bobby Jindal and his mighty Veto Pen, the war will be lost. GRAD Act will no longer be necessary because it will have achieved its objective. And the battle over the admissions criteria will be turned around. A completely Pyrrhic victory.

Because now that higher education in Louisiana will have shifted from a public good supported by the public, to a an almost completely privatized, student-funded model, there will be no need to keep so many students out anymore.

But what is the alternative? According to Sen. Adley, thousands of unemployed university employees come July 1.

And where will the students go then?

PS: Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) supports this bill. Of course. Because if you take away all state appropriations for higher ed and replace it all with tuition, business and industry get to keep their “corporate welfare.”

5/12/15 Update: SB155 passed the Senate overwhelmingly and is now headed to the House. However, the wording also granting admissions authority was stripped from the bill–based on Senate testimony, it is because the admission requirements are currently being discussed by the system boards and the Board of Regents and is no longer necessary in this bill. Note that there is one other bill proposing a constitutional amendment to give tuition/fee authority directly to individual institutions (HB61) and three bills addressing the state admissions criteria (HB171, HB333 and HB411).

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