Nicki Minaj Doesn’t Get Louisiana Off the Hook for its Broken Promises to Students

What is known today as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, began as one man’s vision. Patrick F. Taylor believed that all academically-qualified students deserved the opportunity to attend college, regardless of their families’ financial situations. With this belief, the Taylor Plan took shape as a contract between students and states (photo and text from Patrick F. Taylor Foundation website, emphasis mine).

The feel-good story about Nicki Minaj paying the tuition balance for a UL Lafayette student hit my Twitter feed on Sunday night with this tweet from UL Lafayette’s official Twitter account.

State news media picked up on it soon afterward.

But the first question I asked myself was, how much of a balance does this student have at the end of the semester, and why?

I went to the original Twitter thread from Saturday night. Artavion Cook, a first-year UL Lafayette student, tweeted Nicki Minaj a screenshot of his remaining balance for the year – almost $1,200. And Nicki Minaj agreed to pay it. Her additional condition was that students have straight As, so this also tells me Artavion is a really good student.

$1,200 seemed to me a pretty big balance to have at the end of the academic year, especially for students who have TOPS scholarships and need-based aid. According to the screenshot, the student’s balance was last assessed about 30 days ago. Students with balances have holds on their accounts preventing them from doing things like registering for classes, or if classes are scheduled prior to the hold, they will eventually get purged for non-payment. After 60 days, student debts can get referred to the state Attorney General for collections. Students with unpaid balances are at extremely high risk to “stop out” of college – and more often than not, not just for one semester but for a lifetime.

I sent a series of Tweets… which Artavion liked and retweeted…

Which told me I was onto something.

I also saw this…

artavion

Which tells me that Artavion’s situation is by no means unique, and in fact, he probably goes to school with students who are in much worse shape than him.

I PMed him asking if it was ok to write a blog about this. He said yes.

I asked if he was on TOPS or any other financial aid. He replied that his balance was after TOPS, Pell Grant, Go Grants and other financial aid. He also said, “Colleges in LA are not affordable enough especially with the TOPS cuts… So many students didn’t come back to UL this spring & I believe it’s because of the TOPS cuts.”

But as I’ve argued here before, TOPS is a straw man for what is going on with higher education in our state. After just one year of being “fully funded,” we stopped funding higher education appropriately once the Stelly Act was repealed early in the Jindal administration. TOPS used to be a separate budget and it was rolled in as part of higher education funding at around the same time. Then for every tuition dollar raised under the GRAD Act legislation, higher education institutions had their allocations cut. These cuts were not one-to-one cuts because institutions also send back much of what they receive in allocations in mandated costs (see p. 4).

So not only do institutions fund their own allocations, tuition dollars increasingly fund higher education operations and other state costs which may not even have anything to do with higher education. Tuition has become a tax, just levied on our students. While UL Lafayette, LSU, and some of our other larger universities enroll a high proportion of TOPS recipients, our smaller regionals, HBCUs, and community colleges do not enroll as many TOPS students but instead award proportionally more need-based aid. And more students at these institutions don’t qualify for anything at all for a variety of reasons, even if they can’t afford to go to school. So they lose out even more because they are still losing funding and their students are less able to shoulder tuition increases.

While there is a valid argument for restructuring TOPS since it has increasingly become a middle to upper class entitlement, Artavion may be exactly the type of student Patrick Taylor had in mind when he established his scholarship. Artavion also receives both a Pell and a Go Grant, which means that his family’s EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is less – perhaps far less – than it would take to go to college. Taylor believed that “all academically-qualified students deserved the opportunity to attend college, regardless of their families’ financial situations.

And we as a state took on that challenge. It was a promise that we made to our kids. Study hard, get good grades, take the right courses, and do well on the ACT, and you will be able to go to college in our state regardless of your family’s financial situation.

So let’s look at a hypothetical UL student who receives TOPS, full Pell, and a full Go Grant. These all together should be able to cover the entire cost of attendance… right?

Back in 2007-8, so the year Jindal was elected (and the year that Stelly was repealed), the average cost of attendance at UL Lafayette was $12,064. In Spring 2009, the year that the Stelly repeal took effect, UL Lafayette full-time tuition and fees was $1,709. This spring it is now $4,713 – an increase of $3,000 in just eight years.

But it takes more than tuition to go to college. Students need books, need to live somewhere, need to eat something…

The total estimated cost of attendance at UL Lafayette this academic year is $23,270. This is an increase of over $10,000 from nine years ago, the year we repealed the Stelly Plan.

Here’s how it falls out for a hypothetical student with TOPS, Go Grant and Pell – after factoring in this year’s TOPS cut:

  Fall 16 Spring 17
TOPS 2515.86 1130.05
Max Pell 2907.50 2907.50
Max Go Grant (UL Lafayette) 1500.00 1500.00
TOTAL TOPS/Pell/Go Grant 6923.36 5537.55
     
Tuition/Fees (12 credits) 4713.00 4713.00
Housing (cheapest on-campus) 2141.00 2141.00
Meal Plan (mandatory; cheapest on-campus plan) 869.00 869.00
TOTAL TUITION/HOUSING/MEALS 7723.00 7723.00
Difference

(not including books, transportation, other college-related expenses)

799.74 2186.00

 

Total for the year beyond TOPS and maximum aid: $2985.74. And this does not include books or other expenses.

Three grand may not sound like a lot of money to some of my readers. I also know that students who do not get full Pell grants or full Go Grants (the latter because Go Grants are perpetually underfunded) are paying far more than this.

But for a student from a low-income family qualifying for Pell and Go Grants, even amounts far less than this can easily keep someone from returning to college for Year 2 (or 3, or 4…). Or from going in the first place.

Artavion is from North Louisiana so he also lives on campus. Someone could argue that he could have just stayed at home instead of going away to school. Artavion is a kinesiology major and LSUS also has a kinesiology program – although it is a bit different from UL Lafayette’s in that it leads to a degree in Community Health. UL Lafayette also has five concentrations to choose from. In addition, students who live on campus tend to do better in school, and even though this requirement is waived for students who live at home, technically most universities in our state require that college freshmen live on campus for exactly this reason. This is assuming, of course, that living at home was even an option. But fair enough, let’s imagine for a minute that we are now telling Artavion, sorry, if you want to afford to go to school you not only have to stay in-state but stay at home to do it. Would he be able to if he weren’t living on campus?

According to LSUS, the estimated cost of attendance for a student living at home is $15,829. (The cost for a student living on campus is $21,674, so not that much below UL Lafayette.) Someone receiving TOPS, maximum Pell, and Go Grants, even living at home, still won’t receive enough to cover the entire cost of attendance. I’m not going to say exactly what town Artavion is from other than to say that it is about a 45 minute drive away from LSUS, and about an hour from LaTech and Grambling. So it is very likely that even if he had chosen to go to a school closer to home, living on-campus still might have been a better option especially factoring in gas, vehicle expenses, and time. Plus – since he is a good student, you can’t argue with success. He is exactly the kind of student that TOPS was supposed to help. And is. Or at least was.

We made a promise to him, and to his family.

He held up his end of the bargain.

And we broke that promise.

Even if TOPS ends up getting fully funded this coming year, we still broke that promise. Because fully funding TOPS will still mean that higher education allocations will get cut, and may also mean that someone else’s health will suffer (or worse) if they are funded with the draconian health care cuts that are being proposed. So we have a choice between Artavion’s going to college, or someone else’s health.

Both people are our state’s future. They shouldn’t be pitted against each other. We shouldn’t have to make this choice.

And there is no guarantee that with next year’s fiscal cliff looming, again, that TOPS won’t be on the chopping block, again.

This isn’t prudent governance. This is hostage taking.

I’m really glad that Nicki Minaj did what she did for Artavion Cook and 19 other struggling college students across our country. Because college is becoming increasingly unaffordable across the nation, not just here, and she recognized that.

But I’m also really sad.

Because Nicki Minaj should not be the one making good on a promise that WE made to our state’s kids – to Taylor’s kids – because we decided we don’t want pay for it anymore. Because we decided – despite whatever we say to the contrary – that only those with the means to go to college have the right to go.

Because how many other students will go home this summer with a balance on their accounts that they and their families will not be able to pay, and as a result not go back to school this fall… or ever?

One more thing… According to KFLY and the Advertiser,

Our hats are definitely off to Nicki Minaj today as often times the most powerful influence on a young person is often another young person who has reached the height of their career.

I’m sure this wasn’t meant this way, but to me this sounds really condescending. And completely misses the point.

Artavion Cook did not need Nicki Minaj’s “influence” to get in, stay in, or do well in school. Nor did the other students that Nicki Minaj helped, nor the other students that Artavion was steering her way for help before realizing that he too could use some help.

They needed her money.

Because we as a state and as a nation have largely decided, in the middle of the game no less, that higher education is no longer a public good but just a nice to have if you can afford it.

What kind of “influence” does that make the rest of us? What message are we sending?

You can go to college, Patrick F. Taylor said.

Well, maybe not, we said.

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Ashes, Ashes…

When it comes to higher education, this current legislative session really brings nothing new to the table that hasn’t been discussed in previous sessions. Yes, this year we finally cut TOPS – which prior to now was the third rail in Louisiana politics – so a “standstill budget” really means no longer fully funding TOPS.

But lost in the equation is the fact that TOPS was originally meant to fund student tuition, not necessarily the colleges they go to.

There are other things that need funding too.

Like the buildings that students actually go to class in.

One of the metaphors I’ve used for Louisiana higher education is that of a building that is on the verge of collapse.

But, well, there are literal, non-metaphorical buildings that really are on the verge of collapse, due to deferred maintenance. Deferred maintenance is exactly that – maintenance that should happen to keep a building in good condition, but has been put off due to lack of funds.

Especially here in hot, humid, and rainy Louisiana, if you don’t maintain a building properly, it won’t be long before it will need a whole lot more than just routine maintenance.

Bob Mann has written extensively on this, particularly on the sad condition at LSU’s Middleton Library. He’s also written several times about the shocking conditions at Southern.

While pictures tell a compelling story, I also like me some data to back up qualitative evidence.

So, when I read this today about how ULM is divesting its natural history collection because, funding (OK, so maybe I am a bit behind since this was almost a month ago) – I clicked through to this article listing each higher education institution’s level of deferred maintenance.

Someone in facilities administration might look at this and may argue that the best way to quantify the level of deferred maintenance would be by the number of square feet and number and condition of buildings on each campus. The Board of Regents keeps data on this in its Facilities Inventory and Space Utilization System. But since our state has decided that it wants to continue cutting higher ed and drive us toward an increasingly tuition-funded paradigm, I thought it would be interesting to see what the deferred maintenance is at each campus per capita, based on fall 2016 enrollment as reported to the Board of Regents.

And what I found was… holy &*&%!

System Institution Deferred Maintenance (millions) Fall 2016 Headcount Deferred Maintenance Per Capita
LSU LSUHSC-New Orleans $249.0 2,758 $90,283
LSU LSUHSC-Shreveport $55.7 874 $63,730
SUS SUBR+Law Center $156.0 6,922 $22,537
LSU LSU $718.0 32,031 $22,416
UL Grambling $48.9 4,891 $9,998
SUS SUNO $16.2 2,430 $6,667
UL Nicholls $39.1 6,295 $6,211
UL UL Monroe $46.8 9,220 $5,076
LCTCS CLTCC $10.2 2,052 $4,971
UL UNO $39.0 8,037 $4,853
LSU LSUE $13.2 2,909 $4,538
LCTCS SOWELA $14.2 3,241 $4,381
LCTCS Fletcher $8.7 2,063 $4,217
LCTCS Delgado $54.1 15,455 $3,500
UL McNeese $26.7 7,635 $3,497
LCTCS SCLTC $7.5 2,176 $3,446
SUS SUSLA $11.2 3,309 $3,385
UL Southeastern $48.1 14,575 $3,300
UL La Tech $41.3 12,660 $3,262
LCTCS SLCC $20.2 6,396 $3,158
UL Northwestern $30.5 9,904 $3,079
LCTCS LDCC $10.3 3,687 $2,794
UL UL Lafayette $44.0 17,763 $2,477
LSU LSUA $6.4 3,234 $1,978
LCTCS Northshore $3.6 4,197 $858
LCTCS BRCC $5.3 8,497 $623
LSU LSUS $2.3 4,742 $485

I don’t know how the med schools stay open. It is really apparent just from the level of deferred maintenance that cuts both to higher education and to health care have taken them to the very brink.

And among the rest of the institutions, LSU and Southern have about the same level of ungodly deferred maintenance per capita – over twenty-two freaking thousand dollars per student. To be fair, I combined Southern Law Center’s enrollment with SUBR’s since LSU’s enrollment includes their law students now that LSU Law has been consolidated into the main campus operations.

To put this in perspective, this figure is over twice the annual in-state tuition and fees charged per student at LSU. Which also funds teachers and such.

There is no way that student tuition and fees will get LSU and Southern out of this hole. Without additional funding, this number is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. It is already unmanageable.

Not that things are like paradise at other institutions. Grambling’s deferred maintenance per capita is almost 35% more than annual tuition and fees, and conditions at its library are so bad that it is shutting it down. Deferred maintenance at nearly all other institutions are at levels that again, are impossible to make up for just through tuition and fees and financial sleight of hand alone.

According to the Board of Regents, institutions have received a TOTAL of $274 million for deferred maintenance over the LAST TWENTY YEARS. That is less than forty percent of LSU’s CURRENT deferred maintenance needs.

I am not at all surprised by the deferred maintenance at Southern and some of the other regionals and HBCUs. But back when I started personally chronicling the impact of the Jindal administration on higher ed, and even after I began publishing and blogging publicly a couple of years ago, I continued to operate under the assumption that no matter what else happened, that if our flagship were truly threatened, that is where the state would draw the line.

I believe this no longer.

Louisiana does not value higher education, period. We don’t even value our own flagship except on Saturdays during college football season.

As long as we have just enough to field our football teams in the fall, then it’s enough.

But beyond that,

We. Don’t. Care.

As I’ve said in a previous blog, Jindal may have started this, but this isn’t just his legacy – it’s all of ours. If we don’t want to pay for higher education – since as Rep. John Schroder argued in a recent committee meeting, legislators are merely representing their constituents who want tax and budget cuts – then we don’t want it – period.

Ashes, ashes,

We all fall down.

Maybe not right away,

But soon,

One leaky roof, broken window, and crumbling foundation at a time.

Make Your Comments Heard – Act 619 and the Future of Louisiana Higher Ed

I will be on semi-hiatus until we enter the 2017 legislative session later this spring. However, I did want to write a short post about Act 619. Passed in the 2016 Regular Legislative Session, Act 619:

requests a comprehensive analysis of the postsecondary system that allows the Board of Regents and postsecondary education leaders to evaluate and streamline academic offerings, stimulate innovative research and respond to local/regional workforce needs and, in turn, better prioritize resources.

Draft recommendations were posted to the Board of Regents website last week. Unlike other recommendations requested (or in some cases demanded?) by our Legislature in recent memory, these are posted for public comment before being finalized. The public comment period ends February 6.

I won’t get into much of a discussion of these recommendations now, but I do plan on submitting comments within the public comment period. Some of the draft recommendations include:

  • consolidating and merging administrative functions within systems and administrative, academic, student services, purchasing, etc. functions and services among state institutions within the same market areas;
  • limiting research doctorate programs to LSU – research doctorates at statewide institutions (ULL, UNO, LaTech) would be approved only under “extraordinary circumstances”;
  • in alignment with Complete College America’s “15 to finish” initiative, requiring TOPS recipients to complete 30 credits a year to maintain eligibility;
  • fully funding need-based Go Grants;
  • requiring new university admits to complete any needed co-requisite developmental requirements in their first semester.

There are many more… this is just a short list.

The entire report can be viewed on the Board of Regents website. I am also attaching a spreadsheet summarizing the draft recommendations that was distributed to interested stakeholders.

Please – I invite anyone who cares about the future of Louisiana public higher education to take this opportunity to make their comments heard.

We won’t be heard if we don’t say anything.

Peace out.

It’s Not Just Bobby Jindal’s Higher Ed Legacy

I have mostly gone silent here. My last blog of any substance resonated with a few, because I think I captured the grief and resignation of many of us in Louisiana higher education. While I didn’t declare game over, I did indicate that we were playing a much different game, and a dangerous one at that. Higher education in Louisiana will never be the same. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if it was going to be for the better. But it’s not.

I am also a media junkie who prides myself in keeping up with the latest developments on higher education, the state budget, and politics in general. Like many I was stunned by the results of the presidential election. But in the last few weeks I’ve even stopped consuming most media. I’ve seen a few things in passing but there’s nothing new about the latest budget crisis, and nothing surprising about LSU saying that TOPS cuts are affecting enrollment. The annual Higher Education Begging for Legislative Alms has also started. I wouldn’t have needed to see these things in the media to be able to tell you that because if you know the disease, you’ll know the symptoms.

Other than a few retweets I’m mostly silent now on Twitter too.

Silent doesn’t mean disengaged.

Silent doesn’t mean I’ve stopped caring.

Silent doesn’t mean I’m not fighting, even if it is from deep within my soul now.

I am very still and listening. And watching. And processing all the input. Some from data. Some from observations. Some from insights. Some from my heart.

My heart is beating harder and more strangely than I recall in recent memory. Even more so than when I was actively fighting against the policies of the Jindal administration. Because taking on the battles is nothing new to me. It’s in my DNA. It’s what I do. I see a wrong, I fight it, and sometimes I even win and the wrong gets righted. End of story.

But this is something different.

This is the heart of a prophet who warned, and warned, and warned.

And few if any listened.

And the prophecies are coming true. But like all true and good prophets, I stayed behind to try and warn the stragglers who were left.

And now I’m stuck in the edifice I said was going to collapse. And still not leaving. I’m not technically trapped, but there are still a few people in here with me so I stay for them.

And so I sit, and watch, and listen. In silence. Because only in silence can you hear everything.

I hear the murmurs. I sense the unsaid fears.

I hear the cries of people being abused and berated and belittled to meet unreasonable goals, which are not really goals – they’re the benchmarks for survival of their departments, or institutions, or the whole state higher education system, but they are now slipping beyond everyone’s reach.

I see people I never thought would leave Louisiana, leave.

I see people I never thought would give up on higher education altogether, give up. People whose entire lives and identities were built around what we do for students, for our state, and for each other. For some they are actually giving up on themselves as a result.

I see the grabs for the scraps of what is left. They look like typical power grabs but they’re not. They are of the starving leveraging what little power they do have to make sure they stay fed at the expense of others, so that they can keep their positions and careers intact as long as they can until they get their tickets out themselves. It’s about survival.

I’m starting to see students give up on us.

In the silence, I watch and hear the cracks spreading across the foundation, and bits of debris raining down like sawdust. I warned about a multi-institutional collapse of historic proportions. It is happening.

In slow motion.

And I am in pain. So much pain. Because all I can do is watch, and listen, and feel.

And I don’t leave. I can’t. It’s not because I can’t get another job. It’s because of my heart.

I can’t fix this. I can barely bandage the wounds of the broken and bloodied. In fact, some even lash out at me and push that help away because they don’t trust that I’m not going to hurt them too. And I can’t blame them for that.

In fact, where I sit, I am witnessing in horror one person’s life crumble apart no thanks to the sickness that pervades Louisiana higher education. Not just job or career, but life – at the very essence of who this person is or at least has always believed that they are. This may be one of the most talented and knowledgeable people I’ve known from my 20 years of higher ed. This person is trying to escape but can’t, in part – no, mostly – because of the damage that was done here. It isn’t fair. I want to shoo the vultures away before there’s nothing left to pick at but the shell of someone who may soon be discarded like trash, but this person won’t let me risk myself to do that. I might still before it’s over, to hell with what this person says. Because what is life if we aren’t willing to risk it all for others?

What this person is going though is just a symptom. It is abuse, but it is more than that, far beyond that. This one person could be one of many in Louisiana higher education – the only difference is in degree and the speed of the decay. If you are silent and listen and watch, you probably see someone like this where you are as well. Maybe more than one. Maybe even many.

Higher education is about giving. We give people a chance at a better life. We give people the ability and tools to think and perceive and do and know. We perpetuate and grow our culture and body of knowledge. We give humanity.

But here it’s turning into something else.

This isn’t just Bobby Jindal’s legacy.

This is ours.

With every cut, with every refusal to fund this thing, with every legislator saying, “but my constituents won’t do this” and being dead on right because they will say no – we own this.

Higher education in Louisiana isn’t a heap of rubble yet. There are bright spots. There are places that will survive.

But survive… as what?

I watch.

I listen.

I feel.

I grieve.

Labor Day Ramblings

It’s Labor Day, and for most of us it’s simply a long weekend of cookouts with friends and family.

Where I’m originally from in upstate New York, it also marks the real end of summer and the beginning of the school year. I’ve gotten used to the cycle here in the south where school-fall bears no relationship to climatological fall. But in upstate New York, winter– along with the rainy cold seasons on either side of it–can last up to eight or nine miserable months of the year. As a result, summers are sacred and we live out every last moment of them. While our fall semesters get underway here in Louisiana, back home it’s the Saratoga track and summer trips to Lake George and the Adirondacks season. We could have cool snaps from mid-August on, but often the first wave of fall weather coincides with the end of the Labor Day weekend, and first frost usually within 2-3 weeks of that. The first day of school in my home school district this year is Thursday, September 8. Faculty report back for professional development tomorrow.

So while the US Labor Day is what it is because May 1 was just too controversial, it made perfect sense to me growing up not just because it marked the beginning of school, but the beginning of teacher-labor for the year. For most of my childhood and young adulthood, my dad was a labor negotiator for New York State United Teachers, or NYSUT, then and I think still now the strongest teacher’s union in the country.

Through kindergarten, my dad was an English teacher in one of the suburban districts around Utica, New York. When I was in first grade, he got a job for a private negotiating firm that contracted out to represent school boards. There are three things I remember about that job:

  • he was gone a lot because we still lived in Utica, and the job was 90 miles away in Albany. Plus he traveled all over upstate negotiating school board contracts with teachers union locals.
  • he wrote a book about labor negotiations. He was really proud of that book and talked about it a lot.
  • during show and tell at school I tried and failed to describe my dad’s new job to my class. English teacher would have been easy. But labor negotiator? I couldn’t even pronounce it, probably because I had never seen it in print. My parents taught me to read phonetically before I was in kindergarten and I could read the newspaper out loud as early as age 4 even though I didn’t understand 90% of what I was reading. So in class negotiator became “agotiator,” and my dad was like Robin Hood, which in retrospect probably didn’t impress my teacher much because at the time the side that he was paid to take stuff away from was hers. I do remember I got laughed at by my classmates, but since I always got laughed at it wasn’t a big deal.

We did end up moving to the Albany area a couple of years later. I don’t know how long it was after that–a year or less?–but then my dad got the job as a union rep for NYSUT, based in–guess where?–Utica. This is the job he ended up retiring from. As a former teacher himself it fit both his background and his belief system and by all reports he and the group of negotiators he worked with in his generation were quite good at what they did.

So, my dad was gone a lot again. Around this same time, my mom got a job at the New York Bell Company, or what we called Ma Bell (it’s Verizon today). This was before the AT&T split in the 1980s, though my mom worked there after the breakup until she retired, relatively young, in the late 80s. Yes, it was a union shop too.

You could probably define our prevailing family politics then as “unionist.” However, the Albany suburb we moved to was very Republican (which at that time was Rockefeller Republican, not the Southern Strategy endgame version prevalent today). One of my new schoolmate’s parents was the chair of the local Republican party, which is where I think I got that 1972 Nixon poster that ended up on my bedroom wall. My dad was appalled but he didn’t make me take it down. My best friend’s mom next door was an activist Republican and worked for the New York Speaker of the House. Everyone remembered her because she was an extremely attractive and outspoken redheaded divorcee. Yes, you could be a “liberated” woman at that time and Republican. In my eyes my best friend’s mom was the coolest mom ever. There was another reason why she was cooler than my also increasingly “liberated” mom who began subscribing to Ms. and MoJo magazines which I’ll get to next.

During that stage in my life labor unions and the competing politics around them were always there, but very much in the background. That’s because my mom was also a raging alcoholic, and my dad’s traveling so much for work pretty much blew the lid off any control she might have possibly had on her drinking. My mom also decided at that time she hated my dad. So my elementary school years were defined more by my mom’s out of control drinking and behavior. She would get home from work, drink, I would try to get to bed as early as possible before she got out of control, she would anyway, I’d wake up and hope like hell my dad would get home before she did something stupid. But when he did, she would lash out at him, so that usually wasn’t much better. She would also try to kill herself by taking a bunch of pills while he was gone, so his getting home in time to call the ambulance and save her life was a good thing.

So needless to say when the state union sent negotiators to other areas of the country for up to 2 weeks at a time, I don’t remember much about what my dad was doing in Lincoln, Nebraska or New Orleans (actually Jefferson Parish), other than that he left my brother and me alone with my raging drunk mom. Fortunately, she didn’t die and neither did we, but it was rough when he was gone. At least there weren’t any fights.

My dad came back from Nebraska with a map which ended up on my bedroom wall (I don’t remember if I still had Nixon up or not). According to my dad, Nebraska was flat and had bad food. But he loved New Orleans. He came back with pralines, individually wrapped in wax envelopes in a box. I ate every single last one of them. I was still finding and throwing away those wax envelopes for years afterward. He also came back with a recipe for oyster stew which is still a family Christmas tradition today – but really shared mostly with his second family with my stepmom, because my parents divorced around this same time.

For a year after they divorced it was sheer hell because my mother drank when she wasn’t working or passed out (I have no idea how she kept that job with Ma Bell. I know she went to work still drunk, and once she even totaled the car on the interstate on her way to work. Maybe its being a union shop had something to do with it?) but then she went to an outpatient rehab and became super active in Alcoholics Anonymous. While my elementary school years were defined by her alcoholism, my teens and young adulthood were shaped by her (and later my) involvement 12-step groups. She became somewhat of a local AA celebrity and when she died too-young (in her 50s) of cancer 20 years ago the funeral home where we had her memorial service couldn’t hold the crowd.

So back to Labor Day, and my parents’ involvement with labor unions. Before my mom retired, she was union steward in her office. Her union membership didn’t define her the way my dad’s job as a labor negotiator did him, but it was a source of pride. We didn’t make a big deal out of it or talk about unions all the time–it just was. But my generation was the one coming of age when Reagan was elected. There was a sense of fear among my parents’ generation when he was elected–that he would dismantle everything they had worked for–but not so much among mine. I actually vacillated back and forth between the moderate leftism of my parents, to outright progressivism when I dated a guy from Chappaqua who had rebelled against his corporatist parents and listened to WBAI, and then I rebelled against them all in my Rush Limbaugh/Ayn Rand phase, which ended a little over ten years ago after I moved with my now-husband to Louisiana, briefly joined and then escaped from a right-wing religious cult, and in my research into the cult learned that much of what poses as modern conservatism is a racially-motivated, pseudo-religious scam. So my politics now are pretty much what I started with – what I inherited from my parents, even though I mostly ignored them for the first forty years of my life.

I haven’t lived in upstate New York since I left soon after my mom died, so I don’t know what things are like now other than it being a rustier Rust Belt than the one I left. But I don’t see much of what my parents believed in. None of his kids–the ones still there and the ones who left–will be able to retire comfortably if at all, not even the oldest (me) who grew up to be a “state worker.” I’m afraid our retirement is going to be more along the lines of Work Until We Die. My dad is still a staunch unionist. My stepmom grew up Republican but she’s a retired teacher and watches MSNBC. But they aren’t stereotypical affluent “white northern Progressives” who read Daily Kos or get TFA jobs in New Orleans charters, but rather retired Rust Belt unionists. Just like upstate suburban Republicans of that generation were very different, so were upstate urban Democrats. We were all pretty pragmatic on both sides of the party divide, unlike downstate–or down south–where the ideological lines became much more clearly defined.

The state of labor this Labor Day, here in Louisiana pretty much sucks. Labor is a commodity, just like it was in the 1800s. And that’s not even getting to the most dehumanizing commodification of labor – enslavement – which still reverberates through our history today. African Americans are still enslaved in our prisons and trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline. Our HBCUs are under attack and I don’t know how much longer our public HBCUs can continue to exist. I’m glad to see that the Jefferson Parish AFT that my dad worked with all those years ago still exists, and that Jeff Parish has (so far) mostly resisted the divide-and-conquer, labor-killing charterization that is destroying public education as we know it, especially right next door in Orleans. Sadly, I identified my dad’s trip here with leaving me home alone with my drunken mom, and then returning with pralines and oyster stew rather to any work he did until I began working in Louisiana and realized what it all meant and why it was being dismantled. While my dad loves telling stories about his life and work, it’s been a long time since I’ve taken the time to really listen to them. My mom has been dead for two decades so whatever stories my brother and I don’t remember are long gone. Maybe it’s time to talk to my dad and get his stories before it’s too late.

A Requiem for Louisiana Public Higher Education

I could come up with all kinds of lame reasons why I haven’t posted anything in going on six months, since early in the Never Ending Legislative Session of 2016. As time went by, I justified it by telling myself that the best thing I could do was wait until it was all over and then attempt a postmortem, rather than blogging on the day by day political drama.

But the real reason is that I had been so caught up in the political higher ed drama for so long, and hearing the same things over and over and OVER that a few weeks in I realized I had nothing substantive to add that I hadn’t already said. I lost count of how many times our higher education leaders were dragged back to our legislature to once again explain to our elected officials why public higher ed is important and why it needs funding. I could pretty much recite from memory Joseph Rallo’s, F. King Alexander’s, Dan Reneau’s, Ray Belton’s and Monty Sullivan’s talking points. And not a word mattered at the end. Not a one.

Because the deal was already done.

In a new op-ed, recent LSU grad Justin DiCharia traced his journey from last year’s “idealism” as one of the organizers of student protests against higher education funding cuts to “realism” gained covering this year’s session as a Manship News Service journalist. (I should add that I think these student reporters did an outstanding job this year on par with the rest of our excellent legislative press corps.). DiCharia describes how when given a choice, like our legislators (supposedly) faced, between TOPS and the potential closure of our safety net hospitals or life-saving waivers to families of disabled children, he would now sacrifice TOPS. I could dissect the false dichotomy that has been constructed here (not by DiCharia, but by our legislators and their corporate handlers) but I won’t. It won’t make any difference. We’ve already decided what kind of state we are going to be and it isn’t one that values education, or health, or people.

We can’t have it all because we gave it all away, our revenue, resources, and the future of our state and children, and we aren’t taking it back. And there is no guarantee that next time safety net hospitals, waivers, or anything else that doesn’t contribute to the Bottom Line won’t be on the chopping block or pitted against something else we currently deem Too Important to Cut – For Now.

GRAD Act may be dead, but now we have the Elevate Louisiana plan, courtesy of 2014 legislation sponsored by Sen. Conrad Appel (R-Pick One, Merge or Close). DiCharia may not have realized it, but the legislative compromise he describes in his article is the most bluntly succinct description of the Elevate Louisiana plan and its ultimate aims I’ve read so far:

Combine this [TOPS cuts] with reducing Louisiana’s 15 colleges by closing or merging institutions with six-year graduation rates under a set percentage. Along with reducing the number of institutions, those which make the cut should be directed to consolidate programs across the state and eliminate duplicate specialized areas of study. Academic departments not producing more than, say, 40 majors a year need to go. In this time of continued fiscal crisis, the luxury of low-producing programs is expendable.

These measures would increase higher education funding and, in turn, stop universities from having to increase tuition rates.

The three systems (LSU, UL and Southern), along with the Legislature, would investigate how to cut and consolidate the state higher education system. One of the indicators would be graduation rates.

I’m afraid it won’t be long before we see one or two of our HBCUs close, merge, or privatize–or at the very least, before we see new proposals to do so. They are, after all, near or on the bottom of the graduation rate list according to DiCharia’s article. It bears mentioning that traditional IPEDS graduation rates of freshmen entering college upon high school graduation are increasingly meaningless since they exclude huge swaths of students including transfer, returning and adult students, as well as students who take more than six years to graduate. These are also more likely to be low income students or students of color – which penalizes institutions which serve more of these students. Also, Grambling University is poised to lose another $1M in funding this year. It’s not like other universities like UNO or Southeastern are in any great shape either (they are also losing $1M and $1.4M respectively – and the UL System was hit hard in general), but I have no idea how Grambling can absorb a cut of this magnitude unless their alumni step in financially and otherwise to save the university. Conscious or not, this is egregious fiscal and institutional racism at work in my opinion.

While I very much believe in community colleges and workforce training in principle–I am a product of a community college myself–and that not all students can or should go to four-year universities, the growing workforce rhetoric I’m hearing out of Baton Rouge makes me very afraid that we’ve decided that four-year universities will no longer be a viable option for increasing numbers of our students, not even as transfers, and that we will start seeing even more African-Americans and other students of color pushed toward getting low to medium credit workforce credentials while white and affluent students will go to a shrinking number of universities offering a shrinking number of “high demand” programs that will be “state” in name only.

We may look like we are still alive, or in better shape than Illinois where institutions are closing. But we aren’t, or at least not for long. Some of us have terminal cancer. Some of us have limbs and hearts and brains that are being replaced with bionics. So still technically alive, but not really human. Not really public higher education.

This is the “new reality,” according to both DiCharia and the Board of Regents. The money isn’t going to be there for Louisiana higher education. “It serves no useful purpose for the Board of Regents to wish for better days and a return to appropriation levels of the past,” says the statement approved in the April 2016 board meeting. $700 million is all we have to work with, folks. Deal. It might be branded “Elevate Louisiana!” but it sure sounds like “Acquiesce Louisiana” to me.

I could say that we all lose, but we won’t, or at least not equally. People with money and privilege sure won’t. White people for the most part won’t. People like me – professionals and faculty in our higher education institutions, will continue to leave just as we have been for several years now. Students and their families who have the means or grades or ability will either pay the extra tuition, get extra scholarships, or leave for other states where they’ll get a better deal. I think in the short term students who were going to LSU or UL Lafayette will stay closer to home because of the TOPS cuts, so I’m expecting enrollment increases at UNO this year for example, but in the longer term our neighboring states are going to continue their aggressive and increasingly successful recruitment of Louisiana students, and enrollments will continue to progressively decline. We enroll 10,000 fewer college students now than we did at the beginning of Bobby Jindal’s term, even though high school graduation and TOPS college core completion rates continue to climb.

I’m not sure if this is my last blog post or not. There’s so much more to say, about race, inequality, the role of higher education in both, especially now after the events of the last couple of weeks. Last year I was a bit discouraged that the students who were protesting really didn’t know how to protest. Well, some obviously do now.

I actually have hope for the future, and at my advancing age I am still a proud idealist, but I may not see what I hope for, and I may not be part of it. But at least I can say I raged against the machine a little. A few more students were allowed into college the last couple years than before – so hopefully I’ve been part of the solution more than part of the problem. But I’m afraid that Louisiana public higher education, as we knew it, is pretty much over.

 

 

 

Even If Athletics Is A Problem, It’s Not THE Problem

I’m going to offer some observations about recent allegations that Louisiana’s universities are pumping too much money into athletics while academics have suffered–and that they are wasting tax and student money as we face the possible closure of Louisiana’s higher education institutions.

And some people aren’t going to like what I have to say.

First, I don’t dispute either the facts or the seriousness uncovered by Lee Zurik’s investigation here and here. If true, he may well have uncovered some potential NCAA violations in my opinion.

Nor will I dispute Bob Mann’s blogs chronicling how LSU’s academic buildings are crumbling while athletics has the best of the best.

I’ve already commented about the Advocate’s piece on athletic funding as part of their higher ed series.

But I think it is possible to say, again, without disputing either what others have uncovered or the gravity of what they’ve uncovered, that there are other overarching concerns that both help explain why this may be happening and why this obscures the real issue–that Louisiana higher education neither caused our current budget crisis, nor can solve the crisis. And that includes athletics.

First, due to the Jindal administration’s policies, revenue has become increasingly dependent upon enrollment. And not only headcount enrollment (or what admissions folks colloquially call “butts in seats”) but due to performance based funding, enrollment of freshman students who are most likely to successfully graduate from their institutions in less than 6 years. You know those graduation rates that legislators and others are saying are too low? They are based on only one type of student–first time freshmen, almost exclusively new high school graduates, who remain continuously enrolled and graduate in six years or less (or three years at two-year institutions). GRAD Act was a Trojan horse that on the surface looked like it would increase these graduation rates by ensuring student success. And the vast majority of people who supported GRAD Act supported it for exactly this reason.

But as I discovered, GRAD Act rigged the game. What it really did was similar to what some institutions, including K-12 charter schools are accused of doing–cherry pick students who are most likely to increase these numbers. Our universities didn’t even have to intentionally cherry pick either–the mandated admission criteria did that for them. Those criteria that were partially relaxed last year ensured that most of our state’s high school graduates would no longer be eligible for university admission–and that it would educationally disenfranchise our African American students, since only 15% of African American high school graduates qualified for university admission under the GRAD Act linked published standards.  In fact, not all TOPS eligible students qualified for university admission under these criteria! It forced our institutions–mostly universities in this case–to battle for a market that was comprised of almost exclusively LSU-eligible students.

And what is one sure way to recruit high school seniors who can go to LSU or to any other university in our state?

Field successful sports programs, which don’t just attract athletes but students in general. Sports drive overall enrollment.

And while LSU is (now, thanks to budget cuts) at the bottom of the pack when it comes to flagship academic funding,  it is one of only seven athletics programs in the entire country that is self-supporting. It is an elite among elites. More so than any other school in the SEC, and yes, including Alabama.

The rest of our state universities should not be competing with LSU. But thanks to the Jindal administration’s policies, now they do.

The only university in the state who has come even close to competing with LSU in general student recruitment is the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which is now the second largest university in the state and cracked the 19,000 student barrier this year. The increased visibility and success of its athletics programs can claim some of the credit. The Ragin’ Cajuns football team is a lot better than it used to be, but it’s still not going to beat LSU in Tiger Stadium. However, the Ragin’ Cajuns are going toe to toe with them on the baseball and softball diamonds, and they now have decent basketball teams, too. Up until this year when they were sanctioned by the NCAA, they had been racking up victory after victory in athletics and getting more and more TV time before more and more prospective students.

And as Zurik’s investigation showed, UL Lafayette spends more than any other athletics program in the state by far except LSU. The Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation is modeled after the Tiger Athletic Foundation. When your model is the best of the elite funding models, you are going to be successful. According to USA Today, donations to UL Lafayette’s athletics almost doubled ($3 million increase) between 2013 and 2014 while university subsidies decreased by $2 million. So the recent increase in spending came from donors, not taxpayers.

Louisiana Tech is holding its own as well. But outside of these three institutions (and theoretically UNO, although it is losing the recruitment battle to both LSU and UL Lafayette so I won’t include them here), what about the rest of our universities? Should they be competing directly with LSU, or even with UL Lafayette or LaTech? Should they be expected to?

Let’s look at the mission statements of two of the smaller universities in Zurik’s report: McNeese State and Northwestern State.

McNeese’s mission is explicitly as a teaching institution serving the Lake Charles region:

McNeese State University is primarily a teaching institution whose mission is successful education of the undergraduate and graduate students and services to the employers and communities in the southwest Louisiana region…

McNeese is responsible for serving:

  • Residents of southwest Louisiana who have completed high school and are seeking either a college degree or continuing professional education;
  • Two-year college transfer students, particularly those from Sowela Technical Community College;
  • Employers in the region, both public and private, school districts, health care providers, local governments, and private businesses;
  • Economic development interests and regional entrepreneurs; and
  • The area community, by providing a broad range of academic and cultural activities and public events.

Northwestern’s is less explicit in its geographic focus on a specific service area, but it too is a teaching institution serving its region:

Northwestern State University is a responsive, student-oriented institution that is committed to the creation, dissemination, and acquisition of knowledge through teaching, research, and service. The University maintains as its highest priority excellence in teaching in graduate and undergraduate programs. Northwestern State University will prepare its students to become productive members of society and will promote economic development and improvements in the quality of life of the citizens in its region.

Now there is nothing wrong with either school having athletic programs. But is it their mission to compete with LSU or even with mid-major schools like UL Lafayette or LaTech? No. These are regional, teaching universities whose missions are to serve their regions. However, in an environment where institutions are forced to compete with one another for both resources and students–not because they ARE scarce but because they have been MADE scarce, it’s no wonder that schools spend more on athletics… because they help them recruit more students.

And as I said above, even if everything in Zurik’s reporting is substantiated–and I am not questioning either his reporting or his facts here–it clouds the real issue.

What is our state’s budget hole? THREE BILLION DOLLARS.

So while the academic in me sympathizes fully with the Northwestern professor who lost her job due to cutbacks while athletics flourished, and I don’t condone what happened, this likely would not have happened in the first place if higher education budgets had not been cut 13 times in 8 years, forcing some of our institutions to go from being non-players in the athletics arms race to bit players in order to recruit a decreasing pool of eligible students and survive. (Note I said eligible students. More and more students are there. We just decided more and more were no longer eligible.) The amounts cited in Zurik’s article pale in comparison to the cuts higher education has taken and to the massive crater of a budget deficit we are in.

Here is the real crime.

We have found where most of the $3 billion went.

Over $1 billion from uncollected horizontal drilling revenue.

Over $1 billion in other previously unreported corporate tax breaks.

And much of the rest in borrowing tricks that put the state further in debt as well as shady DHH budgeting that simply kicked the deficit can up the road into the Edwards administration.

Again, I am not at all condoning or minimizing what Zurik found in his reporting… but it is chump change when comparing it to what Jindal did.

Because focusing on college athletic funding obscures the real problem. That the budget situation is not higher education’s fault. In fact, Jindal’s rigged game may be the real reason why some universities may be tempted to break the rules. Because it’s become all about survival.