Higher education and healthcare in Louisiana have become the emergency funds for budget shortfalls over the course of the past few years, but the state passed two constitutional amendments to protect Medicaid funds on November 4th. Prioritizing Medicaid funding is a no-brainer, but the bizarre constitutional amendment process used in our state to secure funding is a tremendous problem. Every time we pass an amendment that protects funding for a particular program or area, it places higher education funding in more peril. Now that a substantial portion of healthcare funding has been secured through the constitution, higher education is left standing as the last major source of “flexible” funding. This is a process that feels a lot like Peter stealing from Paul to pay Mary, and Paul is in pretty bad shape financially at this point. Over the past six years, state funding for higher education has dropped 43%.
Let me give you a small but personal example of the harm this process has caused. LSU faculty and staff received an email a a couple of weeks ago letting them know that yet another spending freeze was being implemented. As a doctoral student at LSU, the email came at a particularly inopportune time. Doctoral students in my program are required to participate in national and regional conferences each year to present our research, but all of our travel funding was abruptly halted this year by our department and we have been fighting to get it back. The dean of my college was working with others to locate alternative sources of graduate student travel funds outside of our college’s budget, but a specific area that was frozen by Governor Jindal last week was travel funding, so our battle, for the foreseeable future, is a completely losing one. Now I, along with many, many others in higher education across the state, will have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket with zero institutional support to attend these professional meetings and keep myself competitive for the job market. Travel funding has historically been available for graduate students to apply for by demonstrating the significance of our work for the university as well as the significance of our financial need. The university has supplied this funding because it benefits from having its students present at prestigious conferences and proudly represent the LSU brand. The loss of travel funds for students will inevitably pull down LSU’s presence at these meetings and further diminish our reputation as a leading research university. I worry deeply for my university, as there seems to be no end in sight for the abuse of higher education funding.
So what do we do? How do we help students who are shouldering the serious consequences of unprotected higher education funding? Well, we can wait for Governor Jindal to stop bleeding higher education dry, but I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one. An actual option is advocating for student loan reform.
The first bill is the Middle Class Creating Higher Education Affordability Necessary to Compete Economically (CHANCE) Act, which Senator Mary Landrieu sponsored. This bill would increase the maximum Pell grant award from $4,040 to $8,900 and restore year-round Pell grants so that students taking summer classes or intercession classes could benefit from the grants as well. Here’s why you should care about Pell grants. They are need-based, rather than merit-based. The importance of need-based funding in higher education cannot be overstated and is why we have joined the Louisiana Budget Project in strongly advocating for increased funding for our Go Grant program. The Middle Class CHANCE Act is a serious step in the right direction to support our college students in Louisiana.
The second bill is an effort led by Senator Elizabeth Warren and co-sponsored by Senator Landrieu. The Bank on Students Emergency Loan Act would allow borrowers of both private and federal undergraduate loans to refinance those loans at 3.86%. Student loan interest rates are gouging borrowers and will on average cause borrowers to pay tens of thousands of dollars in interest over the life of their loan on top of the principle amount owed. Allowing students to refinance their loans is a meaningful way to reduce the extreme financial burden of today’s college education.
As a student in higher education with a serious amount of student loan debt that has accumulated over the past several years, I feel supremely lucky to know that these policies are in play. There are almost 600,000 students in Louisiana with student loan debt. Every single one of us is counting on these policies to succeed.