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For Louisiana College Students, An Uncertain Future

Thousands of students recently gathered outside the state capitol to protest higher education budget cuts.
Mallory Falk
Thousands of students recently gathered outside the state capitol to protest higher education budget cuts.

Governor John Bel Edwards has warned that Louisiana's budget crisis likely means even more cuts to higher education — up to $70 million — and big changes to the state's popular scholarship program, TOPS. For local students, that translates to an uncertain future.

Ace the Warhawk is a big red bird with aviator goggles. Rowdy the Cowboy has a huge cleft chin and yellow Stetson hat. The mascots for the University of Louisiana at Monroe and McNeese State usually stand on opposite sides of the field. Last week they stood, felt hand in felt hand, at the state capitol. They had a message: no more budget cuts.

Cheerleaders shook pompoms. A student nailed the national anthem. It felt as much like a pep rally as a protest.

Louisiana's already had the largest disinvestment in higher education — $700 million — and the highest tuition hike in the nation. As students and school leaders took the microphone, the tone was less amped than angry.

"We are tired of threats," said University of New Orleans Student Body President Joy Ballard. "We are tired of crippling debt. But most of all, today we are tired of empty promises."

One of the most sacred promises Louisiana has made has traditionally been the TOPS scholarship program. The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students pays full tuition at Louisiana public colleges and universities and some private institutions. If a student takes certain courses, gets a 2.5 GPA and earns a 20 ACT score, they get TOPS. It started out as a small, privately funded program to help low-income students go to college.

Walter Kimbrough is President of Dillard University, a private school that takes TOPS scholars.

"Originally there were income caps so that the focus could really be low-income and students of color," he says.

When the program first started in 1988, your family had to earn less than $25,000. That's about $48,000 today, adjusted for inflation.

The state took over the program and a decade in, the income cap got lifted. And an ACT requirement got added. Kimbrough says research shows ACT scores can be directly correlated to income levels.

"It just became a merit-based program for anybody," he says. "And so you saw the numbers of black students and low-income students drastically drop off."

A special report from The Advocate confirms this. It found more than two-thirds of TOPS students come from families that exceed the old income cap. And while the total number of TOPS students has greatly increased, a white student is almost three times more likely than a black student to receive TOPS.

Kimbrough says if the state needs to cut TOPS, it can't keep trying to be everything to everyone.

"Just say it's a merit-based program and we know that it's gonna disproportionately benefit middle and upper-middle class students," he says.

Right now, the proposal on the table isn't re-instituting the income cap. It's raising the ACT score from a 20 to a 28. That's sent some high school seniors into a tailspin.

Corieontay Benson is a senior at Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School in New Orleans. She was on Mardi Gras break when she saw a flurry of tweets about TOPS. Benson wants to study pre-pharmacy at Xavier University. She already took the ACT and scored a 22, clearing the current bar but not the proposed one.

"I made sure I was eligible for TOPS," she says. "I made sure everything was straight. And then I come to find out that they're thinking about cutting it and the requirements might raise. So I was like, how am I gonna be able to pay for college?"

Benson already planned to re-take the test — the higher your score, the more benefits you get — but now there's extra, unexpected pressure.

Engram Wilkinson is an academic counselor at Clark, and Benson's ACT tutor. "There was this kind of endorsement that if they did well enough and really committed to their studies for four years, that there was this guarantee at the end of the road," he says. "And I think it's been really jarring for them to have bought into this promise of making the ACT scores and performing well in class, only to be told two months before they graduate that oh, very suddenly it's all gonna be on you again."

This is coming at a time when students should be, as Wilkinson puts it, taking a deep inhale. Getting college acceptance letters and enjoying the last stretch of high school. Instead they're scrambling for scholarships and considering cheaper schools.

Wilkinson says it's hard to counsel students. Will the TOPS requirements change? Even if they don't, will certain majors or schools still exist in the fall? "So much of this is uncertain or unresolved as it stands," he says.

Senior Corieontay Benson has a message for legislators as they hammer out a deal.

"Without TOPS, we wouldn't even have the capability to pursue our dreams," she says. "Everybody has dreams, but sometimes it takes money."

She says the state should invest more, not less, in her education.

Support for WWNO and our education news comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Entergy Corporation.