Telling truth or spreading hysteria? Louisiana legislators tell higher education officials to chill out

Ending TOPS? Closing down university campuses?

Not so fast, said some legislators on Monday who are taking issue with the emergency rhetoric being used around Louisiana’s colleges and universities in recent weeks ahead of a historically large midyear budget shortfall.

State Sens. Conrad Appel, R-Metarie, and Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, scolded higher education leaders on Monday for allowing the worst-case scenarios of higher education to overtake the news cycle.

“This is the first day of the (legislative) process and the news media is flashing all this stuff up and getting the people all worked up,” Appel said in a Senate education committee. “I just don’t think it’s fair.”

But leaders of the state’s colleges and universities say they are merely telling the truth, putting out the budget proposals they were instructed to in the event that higher education is struck with potentially a $200 million budget cut that must be absorbed in four short months. At best, higher education is being told to expect a loss of $70 million for the remainder of the fiscal year, and that’s even if legislators agree to new taxes.

Gov. John Bel Edwards along with the leaders of higher education have said for the past two weeks that if new revenue isn’t raised in the special session, college campuses, the health centers and research stations could close between April and May. The potential cut to higher education is part of a more than $850 million midyear budget deficit.

Last week, hysteria ensued when the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance told schools they would be suspending payments for TOPS in light of the budget uncertainty. Initially, LSU officials speculated the shortfall in the full tuition scholarship program could be passed to students. But Edwards clarified that universities would absorb the $28 million shortfall for this year that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students was underfunded from the 2015-16 budget.

Edwards went on to announce TOPS is only funded about 21 percent for next year’s budget, which starts July 1. LOSFA officials stated that at that level of funding, the criteria would have to be drastically changed, and the minimum ACT score requirement would have to be increased from a 20 to a 28 out of 36, which could kick out some 37,500 students who are currently eligible.

“I don’t think there’s one person in this room that thinks TOPS is over, but we’re allowing that conversation,” Walsworth said. “I want us to be very careful.”

On Monday morning, some media reported a story that under a “best-case scenario,” a University of Louisiana system school would have to close for two weeks this semester. ULS President Dan Reneau later confirmed the school in question was Nicholls State University, but he told The Advocate that the closure was not a certainty.

The lowest cut higher education is expected to take for the rest of the fiscal year, even if the Legislature decides to raise taxes, would be $70 million — $28 million which comes from the TOPS shortfall. That cut means Nicholls State will lose at least $809,000 before the end of the spring semester, which doesn’t even yet count the loss in TOPS funds, said Cami Geisman, vice president of communications for the UL system.

Appel pointedly questioned Reneau about the report.

“We are far, far away from a situation, I’m talking about legislatively, that would force the closure of schools,” Appel said, warning higher education leaders of creating a “self-fulling prophecy” with their rhetoric.

Other system leaders rejected accusations that they were sensationalizing the real impacts of budget cuts.

“The worst situation we could be in is for the session to end, and nothing to be done, and them to come to us and say, ‘Well you should have told us that would have happened,’ ” LSU president F. King Alexander said.

The president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System agreed.

“We are not going over board, we’re just telling the truth,” Monty Sullivan said.

But some high school students across Louisiana have taken notice of the gloomy headlines.

Evangel Christian Academy junior Johnathan Jones, an 18-year-old wide receiver for the football team, announced on Twitter on Monday that he was rescinding a verbal commitment he made to attend and 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 told The Advocate. “The future seems bleak now for Louisiana students who have worked hard all these years and not know what your future holds.”

Asked specifically what changed his mind, Jones said it was the announcements that “there would be possible university closures in April.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.

More Stories