Louisiana, How Can You Use Collegians as Your Debit Card?

Higher tuition hurts students more than it helps budgets

Louisiana legislators and Governor Bobby Jindal are shutting doors on an increasing number of high school students.

The percentage of Louisiana high school students crossing graduation stages is growing. More students and a greater share are enrolling in colleges and universities. Over 90 percent of these student attend an institution in Louisiana. Increases in the proportion of graduates in Louisiana are in-line with national trends, which show the country climbing to an 81 percent high school graduation rate – an all time high!

Stores can’t keep graduation balloons in stock. (The Louisiana Department of Education is beating parents to the stores.)

Related: Colleges appeal to Congress to cut regulations they say drive up costs

But Louisiana graduates are marching toward public colleges and universities that are on fiscally shaky ground. Public colleges and universities are bracing for unprecedented cuts. (I know it seems Louisiana goes through this every budget, but the next cut is supposed to be really big.) Governor Bobby Jindal is facing a $1.6 billion budget gap next year.

And Jindal is waiting for college presidents to charge the revenue gap against students’ tuition bills.

If universities respond to looming cuts by raising tuition and/or slashing programs that bolster student success, postsecondary leaders and legislators will take the air out of graduation balloons.

Related: Why New Orleans school officials closed a struggling charter school while keeping a failing one open

Note to Louisiana lawmakers: High school graduation isn’t the end goal. Why invest in K-12 reform only to burn that investment by destroying public higher education?

Our graduates know the math. Investments in collegians pay dividends to society. Likewise, raising tuition reduces the value of the investment because it lessens students’ chances toward graduation.

Another note to lawmakers: the goal isn’t to make smart people poor.

Higher education (as well as health care) is on the discretionary side of the budget in Louisiana as in many states. Consequently governors cut university and hospital budgets to make up for bad projections, ineffective economic development policy, decreases in revenue as well as to keep promises to non-state residents like Grover Norquist. Like many Republican politicos, Jindal signed a pledge to Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform to not raise taxes. But the state has a $1.6 billion budget gap.

The Times-Picayune reports that Jindal’s proposed budget would slash university coffers by $600 million next year. This would force individual campuses to make significant alterations to their academic offerings and student services. As an example, Louisiana’s flagship university, LSU, would see its funding drop from $110 million to $30 million. LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander said, “This budget reduction is so large we’d have to furlough everybody for the entire year.” Alexander and other presidents will most certainly raise tuition to fill the gap created by the state.

High school graduates and collegians aren’t the state’s debit card.

Taxpayers should continue the gains we’ve made in K-12 by meeting the demands of our high school graduates. Meaning, all residents must help close budget gaps and fill revenue holes. Society benefits when individual students succeed. So it makes sense to meet budget gaps by raising taxes.

Related: Young, inexperienced principal tries to turn New Orleans charter school around

Revenue must come from somewhere. Shifting the responsibility of generating revenue to college presidents is a poor abdication, and it masks what it really is – a tax is a tax by any other name. The painful irony is that Jindal will keep a promise to Norquist and not raise taxes, but he will facilitate tuition hikes for in-state residents.

Louisiana isn’t the only state to place a hidden tax on the backs of smart people. Governors in Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas and Wisconsin are poised to force college leaders to raise tuition to meet ostensible shortfalls.

As a former college administrator, I know that when budgets are cut so are student services. Increasing tuition has never been a strategy to improve college graduation rates; unless of course the state is seeking to discourage lower income students from attending four-year colleges.

At a time when more students are graduating, the state should do everything it can to improve access to a college degree. If revenue is a problem, maybe the state should increase taxes on graduation balloons. Unfortunately, the state would rather let the air out of rising graduation rates.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).