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Cajun College 101

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I think that everyone agrees that post-secondary education is too expensive. Of all the issues that I have been reading about in this lead-up to the midterm elections, education seems to be most on the minds of younger voters. For all of the reasons I have been discussing, and more that I haven't yet addressed, young people are frustrated by the way higher education is handled in this country. Be the issues financial or qualitative, those closely connected to the way college works in America are voicing their disappointment in a system that was supposed to provide stability and opportunity.

But sometimes I have to ask: Am I expecting too much?

Having asked this, I must now state that I live in Louisiana. For those who are not familiar with our particular brand of frustration with higher education, I'll start with the jazz funeral that was held on the LSU campus at the beginning of this month. The jazz funeral is one of the most fascinating and wonderful traditions in this region--original to New Orleans, it is an enduring celebration of life in two respects: that which has ended and that which persists in its absence. Music and death have intertwined for millennia, and the jazz funeral is a testament to the healing and joy music can provide even at a time of great sadness. So, who died?

The university. And by that I mean both this one in particular and the concept of higher education in general. From Governor Bobby Jindal's Facebook page, under the heading "More Value in Higer [sic.] Education":

I know there is a lot of discussion about budget cuts and many of you have strong opinions about how much money the state should be spending on your campus. I am happy to hear your thoughts on that, but I would ask that you would also take the time to think more deeply about your college experience and share with me your thoughts on how we can save money, and improve your educational experience. I truly believe Louisiana has a bright future because of the quality of our young people.
Well, I believe that too. However, here are the numbers: Since January 2009, the state legislature has made $42 million in reductions to higher education, including $5.1 million more just announced last week, an average of about $2 million per month. This is meant to make up for a loss of $290 million in federal stimulus plus a $108 million state budget deficit at the end of the 2009-2010 fiscal year--of which, higher education is zapped for $34.7 million, and LSU in particular for $21.2 million. Of that $290 million mentioned above, 20% was used for public colleges, and replacing that money is now what the legislature calls "maintenance of effort."

Our educational statistics put us at the very bottom of the heap in too many areas--except in budget cuts. According to the governor's office budget list, higher ed cuts make up 31% of that entire effort to recoup the deficit. No other industry or department cuts even come close. I'm still nauseous from reading that.

These numbers probably mirror those in quite a few other states, and my intent is not to say that in this respect, Louisiana is unique. It is an undeniable truth that the entire country is feeling the squeeze these days. But I have to ask this question: When did we stop caring about educating our citizens, and how, in this post-Katrina world, have we not improved our standard of living? Was it when Obama took office and Bobby Jindal, who cares so much about education, decided he didn't like the stimulus plan and that he would initially refuse funding, even though a whopping 20% of that was needed for our colleges and universities? Can I go back to Katrina and blame that storm for all this poverty and ignorance? Going even further, I really wish I could blame this disgrace on partisan politics, which have existed since the dawn of time, but I really don't believe that's the answer either. Because truth be told, the only thing that has ever made significant money, at least at this flagship school, is athletics.

So what is the answer, Governor Jindal? This problem is so complex that I don't think there is an answer that would satisfy everyone. Should we raise taxes? Probably so. Will people want to pay more taxes? Definitely not. And maybe here is the disconnect that I'm looking for: we talk so much about what we should do and what we want to do, but never about what we have to do. The survival of our state and our country will require tough choices that will ruffle lots of feathers, and I hope someone has the courage to make those decisions before we see the downfall of our beloved school.

And in connection to all this, what about Louisiana's dependence on the fossil fuel industry, and the complexity of being progressive in this great state? More on that anon.