College students worried their campuses could close their doors mid-semester swarmed the Louisiana Capitol steps Wednesday to protest the threat of deep budget reductions, chanting “No more cuts!”
Crystal Harris showed up in a full cap and gown, bearing a sign that said “Can I graduate please?”
The 41-year-old English major at Southern University at New Orleans said she was hoping to graduate this semester but worried state funding cuts could disrupt those plans.
“I’m in my cap and gown because this might be the only opportunity I might get to wear it if the legislators don’t do something,” Harris said on the Capitol steps.
Higher education leaders estimated 2,000 students attended the rally on a brisk and windy day where they struggled to hold signs saying “Louisiana Needs More College Graduates” and “S.O.S: Save Our Schools.”
The Southern University marching band also performed at the protest.
“Policymakers, I implore you to do what is right,” said Danyelle Parrish, student government president of River Parishes Community College. “I need to know that I will be allowed to finish my nursing program that I worked so hard to get to.”
The state’s four public college system presidents urged students to reach out to lawmakers and pressure them to protect campuses from slashing.
“You are not a cut. You are an investment by the state of Louisiana,” Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Monty Sullivan said to cheers.
Gov. John Bel Edwards spoke at the rally, saying he was working to shield the schools.
The Democratic governor is asking lawmakers gathered in a special session to raise taxes to help close deep gaps in the budgets for this year and next.
Some Republicans have shown resistance to taxes and are pushing for deeper cuts, and they’ve objected to talk of campus shutdowns, threats of a canceled LSU football season and steep reductions to the state’s TOPS free college tuition programs.
But higher education officials say those possibilities are real, not scare tactics.
Without tax hikes, the Edwards administration says colleges could be hit with more than $200 million in cuts over the next four months.
Commissioner of Higher Education Joe Rallo said if that worst-case scenario happens, many campuses likely will suspend operations and cancel classes.
Even if lawmakers agree to Edwards’ proposed tax increases, public colleges could still face cuts of at least $70 million before June 30.
Nearly a dozen lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, attended the protest and pledged their support for higher education.