Divided We Learn

A college scholarship meant to help low-income, black students now serves mostly white, middle-class kids

Not TOPS anymore? Louisiana may cut scholarship program that used to be a national model

The new convocation center at Xavier University is seen in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 2, 2013. Student Landan Moore says Xavier is his dream school.

The new convocation center at Xavier University is seen in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 2, 2013. Student Landan Moore says Xavier is his dream school.

Landan Moore decided in middle school that he wanted to attend the best college possible. Attaining the goal would be a stretch, the New Orleans teen knew. Some of his 10 siblings had started college, but none had finished. His dad, a single parent, wouldn’t be able to afford tuition — especially not to Xavier, Moore’s dream school, a private historically black university that costs about $37,000 a year to attend.

Still, Moore considered himself lucky. He lives in Louisiana, a state that, for the past three decades, has offered to pay in-state tuition for any student who earns a 2.5 GPA and an ACT score of 20.*

“That was my greatest motivation,” Moore said. “If I worked harder, I could save money and build myself up.”

At George Washington Carver High School, a predominately black and low-income school in the city’s Ninth Ward, Moore raised his hand every chance he got. He stayed late for tutoring sessions. He enrolled in Advanced Placement classes and did well enough that he’ll likely graduate salutatorian in May.

But the 18-year-old worries his hard work may come to nothing. As Louisiana faces a $1 billion budget shortfall, Gov. John Bel Edwards has proposed cutting the scholarship, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students or TOPS.

Related: If this bill passes, college affordability would go from bad to worse, experts say

TOPS is the oldest state merit scholarship in the nation. Today, nearly two dozen states have followed its lead and offer some form of free tuition. But since TOPS was created in 1989 as a program expressly meant to serve low-income students, it has ballooned in size. About a quarter of the state’s 200,000 college students use the stipend each year. Some are low-income and historically marginalized students, like Moore, for whom the scholarship was originally intended. But now, the bulk of recipients are white and from wealthy families.

TOPS has become unsustainable as it has expanded from just over 24,000 in 1998 to 52,000 recipients last year at a time when college tuition has increased. As Louisiana struggles to balance its budget in face of a nearly $1 billion shortfall, lawmakers face a stark choice: Shrink a program that once made the state a national model in education, or end it entirely.

The resulting debate has produced multiple ideas from legislators to reduce the size of the scholarship, in three broad categories: Cut the size of the scholarship for all 52,000 recipients, which critics say would make the scholarships too small to be useful. Raise the scholarship’s eligibility requirements to prioritize retaining the state’s best-performing students, meaning even fewer low-income students from low-performing schools would qualify. Or re-focus the scholarship to target teenagers like Moore, who are trying to lift themselves out of poverty.

Though a reduction would hurt low-income families the most, experts say any cut could hurt Louisiana.

Karriem Bennet, senior at Warren Easton High School in New Orleans, reads her letter at a campaign rally protesting cuts to Louisiana’s merit scholarship program, TOPS, on April 4, 2017, at the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market.

“This is a state that needs its brightest students to stay here over the long term so our economy grows, so that educational opportunities grow,” said Vincent Rossmeier, the director of policy for Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. “If you see TOPS cut, you are going to see a lot of students leave the state and a lot of students not be able to afford college, and both of those are not good outcomes for the state of Louisiana.”

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It’s possible to imagine what the scholarship’s founder, oil magnate Patrick Taylor, would have chosen. Taylor had grown up “a penniless, scared, scrawny kid,” but his life began to change when he earned a full-ride to study petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University. After college, Taylor started an oil company and eventually made the Forbes list of world’s richest people.

‘A college education for everyone’

In 1988, already a multi-millionaire, Taylor visited Livingston Middle School, a school in east New Orleans that served low-income, black students.

Many of the 183 Livingston Middle students who came to see Taylor speak at an assembly had failed a few grades. When Taylor asked how many planned to attend college, only a few students raised their hands. Some said their parents couldn’t afford tuition. Others confessed they planned to drop out after the eighth grade.

When he asked how many wanted to attend college, almost every hand went up.

At the time, a third of Louisiana’s adults were high school dropouts. Only 16 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Taylor wondered if removing the burden of tuition could transform those numbers.

“A college education for everyone in the audience,” Taylor announced at the assembly.

Taylor told the preteens if they earned a B average, he would pay their tuition. To help them achieve that benchmark, he created a college preparatory program at the school. He brought in a naval commander to lead a summer program that was part boot-camp, part academic training. He bought back-to-school clothes for the children.

Imani Hardy, a first-year student at Xavier University of Louisiana reads her letter at a campaign rally protesting cuts to Louisiana’s merit scholarship program, TOPS, on April 4, 2017, at the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market.

More than half of the students who attended that assembly went on to college. Louisiana lawmakers decided to take over the payments and expand the program. Taylor had limited his donations to students whose parents earned $25,000 or less a year. In 1997, Louisiana lawmakers removed the income cap so that any academically qualified student could earn a free ride.

Three decades later, Louisiana still has the second lowest rate of college graduates and the lowest rate of black graduates in the country. But the state has seen marked improvement: In 2012, the percent of adults in Louisiana with at least an associate’s degree had doubled, to almost 30 percent.

Related: Many state flagship universities leave black and Latino students behind

Lawmakers credit the scholarship for that jump. Officials also believe the scholarship has helped stem a brain drain from the state. TOPS remains so popular some Louisiana students say they bypassed offers from schools in other states.

Grant Henry, a junior at Nicholls State in Thibodeaux, considered Florida State and the University of Texas at Austin, both of which had “attractive” marketing programs. But Henry, who grew up in Shreveport and attended the gifted and talented program at Airline High, knew his family couldn’t contribute much. He chose Nicholls because TOPS, coupled with a smaller grant the state awards to students from low-income families, covered most of his expenses. He has prospered there, he said. He helps run student orientation and publishes a weekly video report about Nicholls.

“It’s definitely been a blessing,” he said. “It has meant achieving great things for me and my university.”

Trouble

The trouble started in 2008 when Gov. Bobby Jindal took office and sliced the state’s higher education budget in half. To offset the cuts, most colleges and universities raised their tuition — some by as much as 140 percent. Because TOPS pays for a student’s tuition, no matter the cost, the amount of state money needed to meet the scholarship’s promise jumped as schools raised the price.

The makeup of the recipients changed, too. As tuition went up, more upper- and middle-class families started taking advantage of the free money. The share of scholarship students from Louisiana’s wealthiest families nearly doubled over the last decade. Last year, more than half of the scholarships went to children whose parents earned $70,000 or more annually. Fewer than 15 percent of students come from the low-income families Taylor originally targeted.

Related: Disparities at state flagships

A disproportionate number of recent recipients are white, too. Black students make up 44 percent of the state’s elementary, middle and high school classes, but only 17 percent of the students who won the scholarship last year were black. Nearly 70 percent were white.

As the scholarship became increasingly unequal, some lawmakers proposed fixes, but none gained traction. Former state senator Rick Gallot, a Democrat who now leads Grambling State University in North Louisiana, suggested an income cap of $1 million, for example. Only 11 lawmakers supported the idea.

Last year, the governor announced yearly costs from the program had risen from roughly $50 million two decades ago to almost $300 million — an untenable jump for a state in the middle of a financial meltdown. The state was $1 billion short of making ends meet last year, and Edwards projected a similar deficit for the upcoming budget cycle.

While other states pay for tuition-aid programs with dedicated, stable funding, Louisiana pays for the bulk of its scholarship out of its general fund, the same large pot from which it pays for basic public services such as hospitals and public safety.

The scholarship, Edwards announced, might have to go.

Many ideas, but no solution

Lawmakers pieced together ways to pay for the program last year, using money from temporary taxes to cover part of the scholarship, but they agreed to create a taskforce to analyze the program’s deeper issues. Ten representatives and senators met this fall and winter to craft a better plan.

Legislators listened to more than three dozen hours of testimony and debate, then came up with nine conflicting proposals. One representative suggested creating a dedicated pot of money for the scholarship. Another proposed cutting the stipends.

Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, proposed cutting the amount some students receive and giving more money to students who outperform their peers. The state’s “brightest students,” Morrish said in January, “are being regularly picked off by Baylor and the University of Alabama and others. I think this gives a little bit of ammunition to our [four-year universities] to say now we’ll have a little bit more to offer our best and our brightest.”

Morrish, who served as the taskforce chairman, suggested awarding full tuition only to students who earn at least a 23 on the ACT. Students who score a 20 are “just average,” Morrish said, and could work harder to meet the new benchmarks.

Moore, the New Orleans high schooler set to graduate as salutatorian, wouldn’t qualify if the ACT bar moved. Though Moore’s 4.14 grade point average is in the state’s highest echelon, he has struggled on the ACT.

Related: To attract more blacks and Hispanics to STEM, universities must address racial issues on campus

Moore scored a 17 out of 36 on his first attempt, three points below the scholarship’s current cutoff. “That bummed me out highly,” he said. But he doubled down on practice tests and tutoring sessions. Last semester, he pulled his ACT score up to a 21, the national average, but two points shy of the cut-off Morrish proposed.

Sen. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat who said at a task force hearing this past January that he would not have qualified for the program as a teen, countered that Louisiana’s “best and brightest” students aren’t necessarily those who score the highest on a test.

“If you overcome some significant challenges and qualify for college, you are one of our best and our brightest,” he said, “and I don’t want to lose you just like I don’t want to lose that kid that has a 36 on the ACT.”

Carter wants to give money to Louisiana’s poorest students along with its best performing, which would cut middle achievers — along with many middle-class students — from the program.

Lawmakers refused to rally behind any of the plans. Instead, the TOPS task force sent all nine proposals to the legislature to debate this spring.

Now, unless lawmakers find $692 million in cuts to other services before June, Edwards has said he has no choice but to cut the scholarship to the bone. The state will continue to use dedicated funds from a tobacco settlement to give about $1,000 to each TOPS recipient, but that’s not enough to motivate the best-performing students to stay, lawmakers say. It’s not nearly enough to help Moore pay for Xavier University.

After Edwards announced the cut, Moore met with his high school guidance counselor to come up with a backup plan. He picked a cheaper, less prestigious school to attend, but he still dreams of Xavier. He wants to accomplish all Taylor hoped the kids at Livingston Middle would.

“I don’t like settling for less,” Moore said. “Why settle when you can keep growing? I want to build myself up and give back to the community. This is for my future. Not just mine, but everyone around me. There are people that not only want it but need it.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the GPA students need to qualify for TOPS. It is 2.5.

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Casey Parks

Casey Parks is a staff reporter covering New Orleans and Mississippi. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, she spent a decade at The Oregonian, where… See Archive

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