For the past few weeks, the prevailing narrative out of the State Capitol has been that the sky is falling on Louisiana’s colleges and universities.
It’s a warning directed toward lawmakers who will ultimately decide what level of cuts higher education will take this year and next. But it’s also a daunting message that’s reverberating through the hallways of high schools and colleges, where students are in the process of making important decisions about where they want to be next year.
In fact, this week, Louisiana medical students are submitting their choices for where they want to do their residency. This is also right about the time that high school students will make firm decisions about where they will go to college and its just enough time that current students who are enrolled can make plans to transfer.
“It seems a lot of people are still focusing on athletics and talking about sports and that kind of recruitment, and I think we’re missing the boat when we don’t recognize that students are recruited just as heavily and certainly doctors are recruited just as heavily,” said New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger III, a Democrat, adding that threats to TOPS and academic programs could be giving students a reason to look outside of the state. “It’s important to maintain our finest students and best brains and not experience some of the brain drain that the state has already experienced.”
High school counselors and recruitment experts said high school juniors and seniors, banking on attending an in-state college or university, are buzzing about rumors that the TOPS program, which would otherwise cover their full tuition to school, is being eliminated or that the overall quality of certain schools and programs will be diminished.
Marie Bigham, director of college counseling at the academically prestigious Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, said many of the high school-aged students watched Gov. John Bel Edwards’ recent televised speech about the budget, where he warned that university budgets could be cut drastically and schools could close in the middle of the year.
“There were kids coming to me saying, ‘What does this mean for me? We may have to rethink college lists for next year,’ ” Bigham said. “They have questions about if funding means that this major might disappear or won’t be as good. They’re concerned about things like quality and resources.”
Other counselors say they are concerned that students already think TOPS will be unavailable to them.
“What’s been trickling down to the kids is they think TOPS is gone, they believe it’s over,” said Julie Scott, a co-founder of Career Compass of Louisiana, an organization that works with about 12,000 high school seniors across the state. “One kid said, ‘What’s the draw to keep me in the state?’ This is a high performing student in Louisiana, and they said if they don’t get TOPS, they’re going out of state.”
In recent weeks, there has been talk of TOPS being underfunded for the current year — a shortfall that will be absorbed by colleges and universities. The governor also has warned that TOPS is funded at 20 percent for next year, however, the Legislature will have the next several months in the regular session to address the shortfall.
But the trickle down to high school students is far more sensational.
“I heard we won’t have TOPS anymore, and to me it’s frustrating,” said Lake Charles high school senior De’Shawnski Smith, 18. “I’m studying and constantly taking ACT training, and I feel like it’s all for nothing.”
Other counselors said they are concerned that the fear about TOPS being cut will lead to some students giving up on trying to meet the benchmarks, which include a 20 ACT score and a 2.5 GPA.
“For the most part, with our seniors, it’s kind of a panic because they didn’t plan for anything else,” said Frank Phinney, a Walker High School counselor. “They put all their eggs in the TOPS basket.”
The bad news also could have an impact on student athlete recruiting. The Advocate reported earlier this week that Evangel Christian Academy junior Johnathan Jones announced on Twitter that he was rescinding a verbal commitment he made to play for Louisiana Tech.
“I am from Louisiana and would have loved to go to college in Louisiana, but that is uncertain now because of years past and what’s going on now,” he said, noting that he changed his mind after hearing about the possibility that universities could close in April.
Another group of students who are spooked about their future with Louisiana are the future doctors.
This week, fourth-year medical students are listing their choices for where they hope to do their residencies.
“Where people practice in terms of residency is where they typically decide to stay long term, usually within 70 miles,” said Dr. Steve Nelson, dean of LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine. “All this discussion about public partnerships and their funding has students asking whether they’re going to stay. There’s a lot of anxiety.”
Jacob Quinton, a fourth-year medical student, said he’s heavily considering the threatened cuts to higher education and hospitals that would affect his residency, as he ranks his choices in the coming days.
He and other students said they are worried budget cuts will dissuade distinguished faculty from staying with the medical schools and hospitals and impact their overall clinical experience.
“I’ve had a great experience and opportunity in Louisiana and had planned at the beginning of my fourth year to stay,” he said. “But given the choice of faculty staying in Louisiana or choosing Houston or Arkansas or other regional players, this sort of budget crisis gives me more concern.”
Edwards took notice of the awkward timing of “Match Day” for residents who could be nervous about a future with Louisiana hospitals.
“In spite of the historic budget crisis, we are working diligently with the Legislature to ensure the long-term success of the LSU Health Sciences Centers and their residency training programs,” Edwards said in a prepared statement. “I want potential applicants across this country to know our commitment.”