Amendment would exempt Tulane, private universities from proposed bill

TOPS

Cullen Fagan, Senior Staff Reporter

On May 6, HB 676,  proposed by Rep. Julie Emerson of the 39th District of Louisiana, was read before the Louisiana State House Education Committee. The bill cleared the House Education Committee, and will proceed to the House floor, but with an amendment that will exempt Tulane from its requirements. 

The original iteration of the bill proposed that universities in Louisiana would not be allowed to withhold student transcripts, and some other student services, for financial reasons such as debt owed to the school and default on federal loans. It defines schools as those that accept the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which includes Tulane. 

The bill was filed in February, but it now has new meaning for some with unemployment estimated to be about 25% in Louisiana as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, where students are worried a lack of transcript might stop them from going to graduate school or getting a job. 

“As our state enters uncertain times economically, it will be more crucial than ever to be able to make the job-seeking process smooth,” said Sarah Procopio, a junior at Louisiana State University and founder and co-director of Louisiana Youth Platform. “We support HB 676 because withholding transcripts to seek payment on debt ultimately creates a trap where students who cannot pay back loans are limited by the institution they graduated from. It’s a textbook catch-22.” 

The amendment, introduced by Rep. Aimee Freeman, redefines “schools” from universities that receive TOPS to public universities. Even though they receive state scholarship money in the form of TOPS, private universities like Loyola and Tulane will now be exempt from the legislation. It will also exempt for-profit institutions, which Davante Lewis, who helped write the bill, says the bill is geared towards. 

“The private institutions, and actually the public institutions as well, function as businesses, so if you put them in a position where they can’t collect the debt that’s owed to them, it’s going to really hurt their long term ability to function,” Freeman said. 

Freeman represents District 98, where Tulane and Loyola are located. She is also an adjunct professor at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane. She said that top administrative officials from both schools reached out to her about the bill with concerns, citing long term financial health. She also said that they provided her with information about their efforts to work with students regarding debt collection and that they were “very much open to helping the students.”

“We believe this bill would limit the ability of institutions to recoup legitimate costs incurred for services, including tuition and employee wages,” read a Tulane statement to The Hullabaloo. “The legislation could cost Louisiana universities millions of dollars in uncollected debts each year.”

Lewis, the director of public affairs and outreach and higher education policy analyst for the Louisiana Budget Project, expressed frustration over the amendment, and the lobbying from Louisiana’s private universities against the bill. “Not only did the private schools help themselves, they helped some of the most predatory [institutions] because they didn’t present an objection in a clear, concise, argumentative way,” Lewis said. 

According to Lewis, though the bill was filed in February and has been on the legislature’s agenda since Monday, private universities did not reach out with their concerns until the night of May 5 or the morning of May 6, right before the bill was to be read, and that no representatives of the institutions attended the legislative session. He said the primary concern that they expressed was the financial burden the bill would impose on them, but that this claim, and the numbers they provided, are not consistent with the research he has seen. 

“The bill, to me, is great, and I will keep pushing it, but we will fight to have this amendment taken off,” Lewis said. “As a Tulane student, [you] should have the same consumer protections as a student at Delgado, as a student at UNO. That is fair, that is just, and that is right.” 

Freeman expressed openness to further conversation regarding the bill. 

“It’s a shame Tulane’s administration would oppose this bill under any circumstances, but for them to oppose it during an economic crisis is particularly callous,” said sophomore Brendan Cuti, President of Tulane College Democrats. “Tulane’s leaders should take our university’s motto ‘Non sibi, sed suis’ to heart and drop their opposition [to] this bill so their own students can get some relief.”

Tulane’s motto, “Non sibi, sed suis,” translates to “Not for one’s self, but for one’s own.”