BATON ROUGE — Thousands of college students from across Louisiana came together Wednesday on the state Capitol steps in the name of higher education. Their mission was to show legislators that cuts to higher ed and the TOPS scholarship program would be devastating, while also reminding legislators they're old enough to vote.
"We're here because the state can't afford to lose the potential of our students," said Jesse Elliot, student body president of Louisiana State University of Alexandria and chair of the Louisiana Council of Student Body Presidents. "We're here to say that any man or woman who is not supporting higher education will not get our support in the voting booth."
As part of Higher Education Day during the special session, the Louisiana Council of Student Body Presidents organized the Bring H.E.A.T. — or Bring Higher Education All Together — rally with help from the Board of Regents in an effort to stop budget cuts that threaten state higher education.
"We need results over rhetoric," said Patrick Harrington, student representative on the Board of Regents and president of the Student Bar Association at Southern University Law Center. "We need real solutions — solutions for students and for all people of Louisiana, solutions for now and for the future. ... We the students and higher education supporters are voters. ... If practical, long-term solutions aren't passed, (legislators) they are failing."
Organizers estimated the turnout at more than 2,000 students of the 200,000-plus currently enrolled at a Louisiana public post-secondary institution and represented by the COSBP.
Many students came in red to match the heat theme, while others sported their school colors. Some held foam "Fork 'em" fingers from Northwestern State or black-and-gold "G" signs for Grambling State, who also had shirts that read "We have a voice. Hear our roar. #SaveHigherEd."
"I believe there is power in numbers," Grambling freshman Africa Sayers said. "If they see a lot more people, they'll understand we're serious about this."
Darius White, Student Government Association president at South Louisiana Community College in Lafayette, said he wants legislators in the special session to know the proposed cuts would affect a large amount of students.
"A lot of decisions are being made," White said. "Higher education is on the chopping block, so it's important for students to raise their voices."
Among the students were seniors hoping their schools remain funded long enough to graduate in May, including one dressed in a cap and gown holding a sign asking, "Can I graduate, please?" But it was clear the upperclassmen were fighting for future students, too.
"We're here to support our rights to education," said Whitney Hildabridle, 25, who attended the rally with more than 20 fellow students from Louisiana Delta Community College in Monroe. "I graduate this semester and there's speculation they might close places. But it's bigger than that. It's not only us, but future generations. We're sticking up for everybody. We're tired of budget cuts and higher education not being protected."
That message was echoed by students across the steps of the state Capitol.
"(If you cut higher education), you're cutting building blocks out of what makes our future society," said Samuel Riehl, a sophomore at University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The purpose of the rally, which included a live DJ and Southern University's Marching Band, was for legislators to hear students' concerns, which Gov. John Bel Edwards also encouraged.
"What you're doing here today, by standing up and making your voice heard, is critical during this period," Edwards told students. "... We cannot afford to not invest in your future. ... Make sure your legislators hear you."
University leaders agreed it was time for students to join the conversation.
"The largest stakeholder in this whole conversation is students," Northwestern State President Jim Henderson said.
Several members of the state House and Senate spoke at the rally, thanking students for fighting for higher education. It seemed clear their "roar" was heard.
"Your voices matter, but your future matters even more," Rep. Edward James II (D-Baton Rouge) said. "... As legislators we are going to fight not only for you, but we are going to fight with you."
Some student presidents also testified before committees Wednesday following the rally, and members of the Louisiana Council of Student Body Presidents met with Edwards.
With the rally and meetings over, students wait to see if their efforts produce results from legislators. They won't have to wait long. The special session ends no later than March 9, and the House begins voting on a host of tax bills Thursday.
"Tomorrow in the House we will be voting to make sure you have the necessary resources in your classrooms," James said.