What the cuts to TOPS Scholarships mean for New Orleans students

December 15, 2016

In 2016-2017, Louisiana did not fully fund TOPS for the first time in the program’s history. Louisiana’s college students from low income households are disproportionately impacted by these reductions. The Louisiana College Access Coalition (NSNO is part of this growing coalition) has proposed a tiered award structure that prioritizes full funding for the lowest income students if full TOPS funding cannot be restored.

We asked one of our coalition partners, Paris Woods, the co-founder and Executive Director of College Beyond, to share her thoughts on how these cuts affect New Orleans students.

Last summer Cedric Dent launched a Go Fund Me campaign to cover the gap in financial aid he’ll experience this spring when his TOPS scholarship is cut. Cedric is smart, proactive, the type of student who plans ahead for a shortfall. A flourishing sophomore at Southeastern Louisiana University with plans to become a high school social worker, Cedric has a 3.4 GPA and serves in a number of leadership roles on campus, including tutoring students with disabilities and leading orientation for incoming freshmen.

I met Cedric three years ago when I joined the staff at Walter L. Cohen College Prep as the Director of Alumni Support. He was a junior then, quietly working away at what would become a 3.7 GPA and his ticket to a full-tuition scholarship at the state university of his choosing. As he describes it, “TOPS definitely influenced my college decision. I chose to attend Southeastern because it was much more affordable. I don’t know what I would do without TOPS.”

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) provides full-tuition scholarships to students who meet set academic benchmarks in high school. Originally founded to help low-income students afford college, the program quickly expanded to serve students from any socioeconomic background. Today, 41% of TOPS recipients are from families with annual incomes of $100,000 or more. Given the rising costs of the program and dramatic budget shortfalls, the legislature voted to reduce TOPS funding by 30% with most of the cuts going into effect this spring.

These reductions will hit hard for low-income students. Consider that in 2016, the maximum Pell grant is $5,815 while the typical public college cost of attendance, including tuition, fees, room, and board, is nearly $16,000. LSU has the highest graduation rate in Louisiana and costs in-state students $22,000 a year to attend. These costs nearly put college out-of-reach for the 39% of young people in Orleans parish who live below the poverty line.

Many families struggle to afford college tuition and often use loans and personal earnings to pay the bill. But the parents of our students rarely qualify for federal Parent PLUS Loans, the most popular lending tool families use to fill financial gaps. Many students work 20-40 hours per week throughout high school and into college, but these funds often go toward keeping the family afloat.

The result of gaps in financing and other college-related supports is that nationally only 9% of youth from families in the bottom income quartile will complete college, compared to 77% of youth from families in the top quartile. The data also tells us that students with identical test scores will complete college at similarly disparate rates based on socioeconomic status. Financial resources matter tremendously and the degree attainment gap is staggering as a result. Yet, the percentage of TOPS scholarships going to families earning $150,000 or more has doubled in the past ten years.

Today I am the Executive Director of College Beyond, a local nonprofit I helped found to close the degree attainment gap for New Orleans youth. We partner with high schools to provide counselor training and support and with colleges to provide coaching to incoming freshmen. Throughout my time at Cohen and College Beyond, finances are often at the top of the list of challenges that stop bright students from continuing their education. The promise of a TOPS scholarship makes college possible.

Growing up, Cedric remembers his mom encouraging him and his sister to work hard in school. A busy single mom, she showed up to parent conferences and financial aid nights, doing everything she could to help her children get to college.

New Orleans students have worked for years to earn strong grades and scores and we are on the verge of a college-going rate never seen before. Many students, and especially those from low-income backgrounds, are relying on the promise of a TOPS scholarship to do so.

In an ideal world, we could fully fund the TOPS program. If financial constraints persist, however, a tiered system that prioritizes students from low-income backgrounds will provide the most equitable access to college for students who have otherwise earned admission and simply need financial assistance to attend.

Cedric’s Go Fund Me campaign was successful this semester. When I asked how he would cover the gap for next year, he wasn’t sure. Let’s join together to ensure that every college eligible student in our state has the support they need to make their college dreams reality. TOPS is an important part of the solution and we can’t afford to cut it for students who need it most.