Courtesy Photo | Students from Bossier Parish Community College at the state Capitol in Baton Rouge following the Bring H.E.A.T. rally for Higher Education.

BPCC, LSUS students rally for Higher Ed. at state’s Capitol

Students attending community colleges and universities around the state rallied in support of higher education on the steps of the Capitol last week.

Speakers representing more than 200,000 students enrolled in Louisiana post-secondary institutions urged legislators to oppose further cuts to higher education. The Louisiana Council of Student Body Presidents organized the Bring H.E.A.T. (Bring Higher Education All Together) rally with help from the Board of Regents as part of Higher Education Day during the state’s special session.

The state of Louisiana is faced with a $940 million budget deficit for this current fiscal year, ending June 30. In the year that starts July 1, the state is facing a $2 billion budget deficit.

Higher education and healthcare are subject to budget cuts because they are not legally protected.

Attending the rally were Jakob Volcheck and Meagan Crews, who are against cuts to higher education. Volcheck, who is attending BPCC on a debate scholarship, feels like the budget crisis has been looming over the state for a while now.

“It was bound to happen, but now it’s hitting us full force,” he said.

Volcheck was among the group of students from BPCC who traveled to Baton Rouge. Looking back, Volcheck feels like their effort was worth it.

“[The legislators] definitely knew we were there,” he said. “Our presence was felt and the most important thing was we put our faces with the statistics. We’re not just numbers on a page.”

Another key point at the rally was voicing concern for TOPS. Louisiana’s student financial aid office notified the state’s colleges and universities in mid-February that it had halted payments for TOPS (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students) because of the uncertainty surrounding the state’s budget crisis.

Governor John Bel Edwards said TOPS recipients would not have to cover the cost of their scholarships. TOPS payments resumed the following day at 80% of the original payments, with universities and colleges filling in the 20 percent gap.

However, Edwards stated that for the fiscal year starting July 1, TOPS could be limited because of a lack of funds. The announcement shocked students and families across the state. Crews said she chose to attend LSUS because her tuition would be covered by TOPS.

“It was the best financial decision for me,” she said. “TOPS is crucial. That’s what I have relied on and worked hard for while I was in high school. When I was looking at colleges, I looked at which one [TOPS] covered more.”

Instituted in 1989, the program uses public money to pay tuition at Louisiana public colleges and universities and a few Louisiana private universities. To qualify, students must meet coursework, grade-point–average and ACT benchmarks.

Crews, a 2015 graduate of Parkway High School, is the first in her immediate family to attend college and it’s something she’s very proud of. She also maintained her grades in high school and earned a high score on the ACT test.

“My future is being threatened right now and I’m taking it seriously,” Crews said. “To go to college on scholarship shows I worked my butt off. It’s not fair that all my hard work is in jeopardy.”

She decided to make the trip to Baton Rouge for one simple reason – to be a voice for higher education. Being at the Capitol with more than 2,000 students was an empowering moment.

“Just to know we were all standing there for the same cause, fighting for the same thing, it was powerful knowing I’m not alone. Having one voice shows we care and we know our voices were heard,” she said.

The special session must end no later than March 9. Both Volcheck and Crews encouraged other students to get involved by contacting their legislators and being a voice for higher education.

“Regardless if you’re sitting on the left side or the right side, this is our future we’re talking about – the future of Louisiana, the future for their children and grandchildren,” Crews said.

Volcheck added: “I think it was a great showing of this state’s next generation of leaders. This shows our students, debate teams, SGA (Student Government Association) presidents and millennials in general are ready to make things better and want effective leadership. We are ready to take on the challenges because we are already involved and looking for solutions to this crisis.”