When state aid to higher education goes down, tuition goes up and the poor are hit especially hard.
This is not exactly man bites dog, and Louisiana is far from the only state to have left its public colleges and universities feeling the pinch since the Great Recession. But if a new study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington is to some extent a statement of the obvious, it also reveals that, poverty stricken though we are, tuition at Louisiana's public colleges and universities has more than doubled since 2008, the heftiest percentage hike in the country.
The report blames the states in general for failing to give the children of underprivileged households enough help to get a college education, and Louisiana is famously poverty stricken. But it is mighty odd to find Louisiana being taken to task for not giving its kids enough help with higher education costs, when the constant complaint from other quarters is that it is way too generous.
Among the bad lists, one stands out for Louisiana's future: higher costs for college educations for tomorrow's workers and leaders.
From time to time, some legislator will suggest reining in the TOPS program, which pays in-state college tuition for Louisiana students, regardless of their parents' financial condition, if they meet certain, distinctly modest, academic requirements.
Attempts to tighten those requirements, or to reserve scholarships for kids who actually need them, have routinely been shot down while the annual cost has shot up and now tops $350 million. There is nothing like a middle-class entitlement to keep the voters sweet, and TOPS is sacrosanct, however unwise paying rich kids to go to college may be.
But if we are putting money in some undeserving hands, TOPS also reduces, if it does not entirely eliminate, the risk that some bright kid from the wrong side of the tracks will be denied the opportunity to develop his talents. If, as the CBPP report suggests, the states are harming their own economic prospects if they do not adopt “policies that allow more students to pursue affordable postsecondary education,” TOPS will serve as Exhibit A in Louisiana's defense.
The CBPP's concern in Louisiana must be for those students who do not have the grades or test scores required for TOPS. The state does allocate money to subsidize poor kids who would otherwise not be able to attend college — what are known as Go Grants are reserved for Pell Grant recipients — but the program, according to the Louisiana Budget Project, is “chronically underfunded.” While the $28.4 million appropriated for the coming year is the highest ever, it has risen only $2.4 million since 2008. That amount was inadequate even before state cutbacks forced tuition to rise.
Tuition at Louisiana schools is equal to 19.4 percent of the median family income. For whites it is 15.6 percent, for blacks 31.7 percent and for Hispanics 22.6 percent. Clearly, a lot of kids are being shut out because their parents are too hard up.
If they can’t qualify for TOPS, they’re probably not intellectual giants, but elitism is frowned on in academe these days, and the benefits of higher education need to be spread as wide as possible, according to CBPP. “A large and growing share of future jobs will require college-educated workers,” the study avers, while Georgetown University's Education and Workforce Center calculates that 56 percent of Louisiana jobs now require postsecondary training. “Many states need to consider new revenue to fully make up for years of cuts,” according to the CBPP.
Louisiana would certainly be one of those states, but higher taxes are never a popular cause in Baton Rouge, and, even if they were, the Go Grants program would not be first in line for a share of the proceeds. So long as we fully fund TOPS, legislators are likely to figure they have met their obligation to kids who need help to pay tuition.
The Louisiana Budget Project does not suggest new revenue, but complains it is “unacceptable” to put TOPS “on a pedestal,” while Go Grants get the shaft. Maybe so, but make a grab for the TOPS money and see what happens.
Email James Gill at Gill1047@bellsouth.net.