A friend in the St. Louis area is on a mission to help as many people as she can get into college and, in addition to that, help them acquire a “debt-free degree.” In the course of her work, she wrote on Facebook last month, she’s encountered the naysayers, the contrarians who tell her that “College isn’t for everybody.” It’s not her position that it is, she responds. But it is her position that college is for and that “it’s been for” more people than have had access to it.
Louisianians should know that to be true. During the past 10 years, the cost of an education at a public university has increased 105 percent. Of all the states in the Union, that’s the largest percentage increase of all. Since 2008, Louisiana has cut funding for public education by 40 percent. That is the second-largest percentage decrease in the nation. In 2008, average tuition at a public four-year university was $4,529 per year. Now the cost for a year of school is $9,302.
Louisiana has the second-highest poverty rate in the nation and the fourth-lowest median income. When you combine those statistics with the doubling of tuition, then you can see why it’s so much harder to attend college in Louisiana now than it was a decade ago.
According to a 2016 report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the U.S. economy had added 11.6 million jobs since the Great Recession, and 11.5 million (or 99 percent of them) required at least some college.
Despite the persistent belief that college isn’t for everybody, it’s just about mandatory for anybody who wants to take advantage of new job opportunities that are being created.
The recession didn’t single out Louisiana. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, across the country, “Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the school year ending in 2018 was more than $7 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation.” The CBPP didn’t have 2018 data from Illinois, but did have budgetary data for all the other 49 states from 2008 to 2018. Of those 49, “45 states spent less per student in the 2018 school year than in 2008.”
But, as stated above, only one state — Arizona — cut higher education funding more aggressively. For most of the decade in question, Louisiana was led by a governor who wanted to main ideologically pure for a quixotic White House run. Not only did Bobby Jindal foolishly sign on to a no-new-taxes pledge created by Grover Norquist, but he also supported the effort to roll back the Stelly Plan, which had, at long last, stabilized the state’s budget. Yes, the recession hurt families with hopes of sending their children to college, but Louisiana was hit doubly hard because the governor intentionally supported a legislative mutiny to deny the state needed revenue.
To take an absolute hardline against taxes is to argue that taxes don’t pay for anything of value. But few things are as valuable as an education, and responsible government leaders understand that as they help more residents get educated that they’re benefiting the state itself. Responsible government leaders also understand that if the state decreases the amount it appropriates for its colleges, then it’s only shifting the costs onto those families who attend.
In 2015, complaining about the budgetary cuts in Arizona, Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, said in a statement, “Over the years, the enormous reductions in the State of Arizona’s investment in higher education have had to be replaced by, among other things, higher tuition (i.e. higher taxes) for our students and their families.”
Statements such as Crow’s appropriately point out the lie. If your anti-tax pledge leads to families paying more for a public education, then you’re not really against taxes. You’re just against the word “taxes.”
Yes, Louisiana has a program that pays the tuition for students who qualify. But the cost of an education includes more than tuition, and, besides, there are students who don’t meet the academic threshold for TOPS who can and do well in college. Putting college out of reach for them isn’t in the state’s best interest.
But there’s another — even more compelling — reason why TOPS is an insufficient answer to the problem of college affordability. TOPS is for students coming out of high school, but that’s not the only group colleges educate. A report from the Lumina Foundation finds that, nationally, full time students between the ages of 18-21 account for only a third of the total college population. Almost 40 percent of today’s undergraduates are older than 25. A tuition program that rewards students who are exiting high school does nothing for those nontraditional students. And if they’re employed in a state with the fourth-lowest median income, those older folks who might want to go to college might find that they simply can’t.
If people don’t want to go to college, then that’s fine, but those who want to go shouldn’t have state officials placing that dream out of reach.
Jarvis DeBerry is a columnist on the Latitude team at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Latitude is a place to share opinions about the challenges facing Louisiana. Follow @LatitudeNOLA on Facebook and Twitter. Write Jarvis at [email protected] or @jarvisdeberry.
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