By Robert Mann
What would you call a place that made it difficult for its young people to earn a college degree by slashing funding for higher education (more so than almost any other state) while it presided over the country’s highest prison incarceration rate?
In America, you’d call such a dysfunctional place Louisiana.
Down the rabbit hole that we call the “Bayou State,” it’s sometimes easier to find yourself in a prison cell than in a college biology course where you might study cells. It’s often easier to get sent to prison for life than to get a college education that will help sustain you for life.
Get caught with one gram of a Schedule I narcotic, like codeine – that’s less than half the weight of a penny – and you’ll get a mandatory prison sentence of four years. And Louisiana will eagerly spend an average of $17,486 each year for your housing, food and medical care. Over four years, that’s $70,000.
Get a 20-year sentence – what a third conviction for possession of a marijuana joint might earn you – and your housing and food would cost taxpayers $350,000.
But what if some young person, tempted to smoke or sell a joint, decided instead to pick up a textbook? She’s from a poor family. No one she knows has attended college, but she imagines herself a college graduate. She wants a better life. What’s she to do?
There’s TOPS, you say, the state’s tuition assistance program and the most popular middle-class entitlement since the homestead exemption. TOPS does help thousands of needy young people make it through college, as do Pell grants and federally subsidized student loans.
Realistically, however, there’s a million miles between a student with TOPS – even with its modest 2.5 grade point average requirement – and what it really takes for a young person living in abject poverty to find the resources and support to make it onto a college campus.
Actually, Louisiana hasn’t totally ignored the plight of those who cannot afford college. There is a state program to help students from the poorest families who, even with grants and other assistance, fall short. Created in 2007, the Go Grant program provides up to $3,000 a year for low-income and non-traditional students to attend college. Unlike TOPS, however, which the Legislature always funds fully, the Go Grant program is chronically shortchanged.
At LSU’s Baton Rouge campus, for example, the school needs $3.2 million to help all eligible students. Last year, the school got a million less than that. Statewide, it would cost $52 million to fully fund the program – a life-changing investment in the futures of thousands of our young people – but the Legislature appropriated only half that. It had other priorities, like spending $4.5 million on a privately owned racetrack.
When will our leaders awake to the fact that our chronic under-investment in higher education will haunt us for generations to come?
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