Higher education advocates got a chance to make their plea to a key state budget panel on Tuesday: Please find a way to avoid cuts to funding for colleges and universities.

“We cannot sustain any more cuts,” said Stephanie Travis, a graduate student at Southeastern Louisiana University who serves as the school’s Student Government Association president, during the House Appropriations Committee hearing.

Louisiana legislators are working to craft a spending plan for the state budget that begins July 1, but the state is facing an estimated $1.6 billion shortfall. Without key legislation to generate funding that will fill the gap, colleges and universities could see an 82 percent cut in state support.

Travis said she enrolled at the college in Hammond because it was close to home. Neither of her parents went to college, and her father is illiterate, she told the committee.

“He actually instilled in me the importance of higher education,” Travis said.

She said years of repeated cuts to state funding for higher education have amounted to a “tax increase” on students via tuition hikes. She said she knows multiple people who have had to drop out because they could no longer afford college.

“Statistically, they won’t go back,” she said.

House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said lawmakers are working to stave off the cuts, though he admitted nothing has been figured out at this point — the first week of the legislative session.

“All of us understand how important higher education is,” he said. “I’ve not had one conversation where they didn’t ask me, ‘Let’s figure out a way that we can work through this higher education piece, so that we don’t have the cuts that’s in front of us today.’ ”

Preston Castille, president of the Southern University Alumni Federation, said the potential for such deep cuts hits especially hard after years of repeated cuts to state funding.

“As you very well know, higher education has been devastated over the last six years with all the budget cuts,” he said. “It’s difficult to run a system in that fashion.”

Louisiana college students and higher education advocates will hold a rally at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .