They came as Tigers, Jaguars, Ragin’ Cajuns and Bulldogs. There were homecoming queens, student government presidents, band members, cheerleaders and nursing students.
Hundreds of students, representing nearly every college and university from across the state, crowded the steps of the State Capitol on Wednesday. They left their school colors at home, opting for red shirts to send the message they were united in their mission to protect higher education from further cuts and that they have a fiery anger about the threats to their future.
The protest, which officials estimated drew 2,000 people, had the energy and the attitude of a pep rally. Students screamed and cheered for representatives from their alma maters. They danced to the music of a DJ and Southern University’s marching band. But the underlying message was serious.
“We are tired of our budgets being cut. We are tired of larger classes. We are tired of crippling debt,” said University of New Orleans Student Government President Joy Ballard-Oliver to the crowd. “We are tired of threats, and we are tired of empty promises.”
The rally on Wednesday was organized by the various student governments of the colleges and universities. It was attended by the four higher education system presidents, several legislators and Gov. John Bel Edwards who all vowed their support to fighting cuts that could result in reductions of faculty, course offerings and other student services.
Edwards’ presence at the rally was received with excitement by the students. He was introduced as “J-B-E, the higher education G-O-V,” by Patrick Harrington, student bar president of the Southern University Law Center. During last year’s higher education rally, former Gov. Bobby Jindal was hours away from the Capitol in Ruston for an economic development announcement.
Edwards vowed to the students that the state wouldn’t fail them.
“We’re going to fix this problem before we go home,” he said, referring to the next 11/2weeks left of the special session called to close a mid-year budget deficit of around $900 million.
Higher education is poised to take a hit, ranging from $70 million to more than $200 million, for the rest of the school year. More cuts are expected for the next fiscal year that starts July 1.
“You are not a cut. You are an investment,” Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, told the crowd.
Students who attended the rally said they were afraid of program reductions, increases to their tuition and cuts to the TOPS scholarships which cover tuition for in-state students who meet mid-level academic benchmarks.
“I’m scared of them raising tuition,” said Grambling State University freshman Miniya Shabazz, who said she’s already taken out loans to go to school. “If students are the future then why are they making it harder and harder for us to succeed at life?”
Grambling alone provided three buses of students who showed up at the rally.
“The thing is, they all tell you that you need to go to school, that you need to get a higher degree to succeed,” said Delgado Community College Student Kimberly Frank. “So how are you going to cut money from our schools?”
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.
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