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Funding problems still plague Louisiana’s benchmark scholarship program and none of the proposed ideas are solutions.
The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarships can’t cover the nearly 51,000 students who receive some form of TOPS aid while it falls $72 million short of the $300 million it needs for full funding.
The sad truth is that we will need to reduce the number of students receiving TOPS scholarships.
What is unacceptable, however, is excluding low-income students from that number.
Of course, the real solution is for TOPS to expand the tax base by helping low-income families break cycles of poverty and add more to state coffers. Authentic leadership would infuse a need-based framework into TOPS that’s focused on increasing access to college for those who actually need it.
Raising taxes is no substitute for increasing the number of contributors. Helping the poor move into the middle class is the long-term solution for Louisiana’s overarching budget woes.
At Tulane University, the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives analyzed the potential impacts of raising the awards’ minimum ACT and GPA requirements, which are the two proposals that members of the Louisiana legislature have seemingly reached consensus on as the best ways to meet the state’s budgetary constraints.
Based on 2015 student data, the Cowen Institute found that raising the minimum ACT score would reduce the number of students statewide by 28 percent and the number of New Orleans collegians by 25 percent. Of the 51,000 students who received funds statewide, about 12,750 would be ineligible under the new rules. That is the approximate size of the combined undergraduate populations at Dillard, Xavier and Tulane universities. Can you imagine if all undergraduates at those three universities didn’t receive financial aid?
Among those who would lose their eligibility by heightening the ACT requirement, blacks would be the most impacted. Of the students who would have been ineligible statewide, 36 percent are black. In New Orleans, 32 percent of ineligible students are black.
“To stabilize our state’s budget we should not shy away from the fiscal right sizing that is needed,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards in a special address to the state. For me “right sizing” requires that we get both the spending and revenue right. Focusing on one without the other would be irresponsible.
The state’s practice of rewarding anyone along a certain standardized cutoff score is irresponsible policymaking. TOPS actually helped Louisiana run a deficit because policymakers didn’t limit the definition of merit according to the state’s need – improving outcomes for low-income residents and increasing revenues. The irony is that the 12,750 students that are cut off are probably the people we need to limit the scholarship to.
Raising the GPA minimum requirement from 2.50 to 2.75 would also make college less accessible for a significant number of families. According to Cowen Institute analysis, 22 percent of award recipients statewide would lose their eligibility. Among New Orleans students, 28 percent would be disqualified.
“It’s time for fiscal responsibility in this state. No more smoke and no more mirrors,” recited Gov. John Bel Edwards, in a prepared speech that opened the special legislative session in February.
Well, the offering of raising the ACT and GPA requirements is another sleight of hand that hides the legislature’s inaction of finding solutions that prioritize funding for students otherwise denied access to higher education, and the proposal masks the unwillingness to restructure TOPS into a fiscally sustainable scholarship program.
Let’s be clear. In places like New Orleans where the child poverty rate is 39 percent, a college degree and a job are the two most direct ways to move families out of poverty and to broaden the state’s tax base. A dedication of the scholarship to low-income high achieving students in a way does both. The state should make its vulnerable students’ job to get a college degree.
In addition, standardized test scores are more a reflection of how much money your parents earned than an indicator of students’ hard work. A change in ACT requirements will disproportionately impact low-income residents. Louisiana, like other states, has unashamedly transformed merit scholarships into a middle class entitlement. So who’s earning a scholarship?
The inaction of the legislature to prioritize scholarships for high achieving, low-income students not only denies a postsecondary education for those who need it most, it continues to kick the can of responsibility down the road. The task of saving TOPS should not be placed on the backs of low-income and black students.
I don’t expect the middle class to see how means-testing TOPS saves money and helps low-income families.
But I should expect our leadership to drive an agenda that makes sense.
In spite of their differences, we should see joint statements from Louisiana Association of Principals, Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.
The K-12 associations should be lockstep in ensuring TOPS is protecting the most vulnerable students.
The current political conciliations for the middle class and avoidance to create sustainable TOPS programs isn’t a break from the previous Bobby Jindal administration’s propensity to kick the proverbial can down the road.
The greatest good would see that the greatest number of low-income, high achieving students gets TOPS funding for college.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.