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CROWN mentor Rodney Woods speaks to incoming freshman Eric Sims during the CROWN orientation at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, LA, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

THIBODAUX, La. — Rodney Woods was on the fence about applying to Nicholls State University, a four-year public institution a 20-minute walk from his mother’s house in Louisiana’s Bayou Region, a rural area of the state dotted with sugar cane fields and mud-colored swamps. He had been on campus a few times. Both he and his mother loved to practice their photography skills among the long-slung red-brick buildings clustered around the school’s tidy quad.

Woods thought about going away to college, but he believed attending a local public school would save his family money. Even so, Nicholls, where tuition and fees reach toward $8,000 and room, board, textbooks and other expenses can add another $13,000 per year, would be pricey for a family that gets by on less than $10,000 a year. If accepted, he planned to live at home with his mother and younger brother to save money and walk or, if he was lucky, get a ride to school.

He was exactly the kind of student Nicholls hoped to attract. He had stellar grades in high school and is civic- minded, taking after his mother, who works as a community organizer in Thibodaux. But Woods’ financial aid only included a federal Pell Grant for low-income students and a $500 GO Grant. He would still have to take out about $3,500 in loans just for his first year.

TOPS’ windfall disproportionately goes to rich white students. According to a 2018 state audit, 74 percent of TOPS scholarship recipients were white and 43 percent hailed from families with six-figure incomes.

These numbers are striking in a state where, overall, 45 percent of public school students are white, 43 percent are black and 70 percent are economically disadvantaged. After 13 years of being failed by the state’s K-12 system, lower-income students are punished a second time by Louisiana’s higher education funding system. Advocates say some of the $300 million currently being used for TOPS would be much better spent on programs that help the state’s neediest students and the institutions that serve them.

“We had a bunch of lawmakers who just felt like the [scholarship] program was too black.”

It’s not just poor families who are struggling to cope with the fallout from the budget cuts, but also the universities that disproportionally enroll them. At the same time that the state has been spending more money on TOPS, it has been cutting the amount of money it sends directly to state universities. Seemingly a world away from the “lazy river” that spells out L.S.U. on the campus of Louisiana State University, the state’s largely white flagship university in Baton Rouge, Nicholls State has at times struggled to provide its students with even basic services, laying off dozens of critical faculty and staff. Black students have been particularly hard hit.

Nicholls is affectionately called “Harvard on the Bayou” for its track record of taking kids from some of the lowest-performing schools in the state and sending them off into middle-class careers. But it had to cut a number of critical programs during ten years of budget cuts from the state that followed the Great Recession. Those budget cuts were so severe at Nicholls that the school was paying more to the state of Louisiana for mandatory costs like insurance and retirement than it was getting from the legislature. The university’s six-year graduation rate for black students cratered to 22 percent in 2012. That number is now improving, but Clune said they’ll need a lot more support from the state to recover. Without much of an endowment, the school is relying almost entirely on tuition dollars.

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Tale of two high schools

It’s hard to argue that Ethan Henry isn’t among the state’s best and brightest. Just a sophomore, Henry has quickly become a leader on Nicholls’ campus. He’s active in student government and his fraternity. He’s an orientation leader and a student ambassador. Henry can’t seem to walk more than a few steps before being greeted by a fellow student.

“One day we’re all going to get to decide whether we’re going to vote for Ethan for some public office,” said Farren Clark, who taught Henry in his public speaking class last year.

An English major, Henry has stellar academic credentials. In high school, he earned a 3.8 GPA and a 29 on the ACT, a score in the 92nd percentile nationally. That qualified him for the most generous TOPS scholarship, which covers nearly his entire tuition bill and also gives him an annual $800 stipend. Louisiana is so generous to students like Henry that Nicholls is turning out to be considerably cheaper than what his parents were paying to send him to Vandebilt Catholic, a private high school nearby where tuition exceeds $7,000 per year.

CROWN mentors Rodney Woods, Lashawn Lewis and Rowdy Scott speak to incoming freshmen at orientation at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, LA, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

At Vandebilt, the requirements for TOPS were drilled into Henry, who is white, and his mostly white and middle-class classmates. “We have ACT prep classes to get you the highest score on the ACT, we have guidance counselors to talk to you constantly about TOPS,” he recalled.

Rodney Woods had an entirely different experience at Thibodaux High School, where about one-third of students are black and two-thirds are low income. Like Henry, Woods excelled academically — he finished high school with a 4.0 GPA — but he struggled on the ACT. Despite his good grades, Woods, unlike Henry, didn’t enroll in his high school’s honors classes, which are disproportionately white, but instead enrolled in career tech courses like welding. When the ACT came around, he says that a lot of the material, especially in the math section, was simply foreign to him. He took the exam twice but could only score as high as 18 — two points shy of the cutoff to receive a TOPS scholarship that would have allowed him to go to Nicholls virtually tuition-free.

Henry’s and Woods’ stories illuminate the issues facing a region of haves and have-nots. While white families in the Bayou Region like the Henrys have incomes that match or exceed the national average, black families like Woods’ earn about a third of that amount or less. The college preparation that each young man received in high school — or lack thereof — reflects that disparity.

Davante Lewis of the Louisiana Budget Project believes that the TOPS program is working just as lawmakers intended when they removed the income cap in 1997. “We had a bunch of lawmakers who just felt like the program was too black,” said Lewis, whose public policy group advocates for low- and middle-income families. “A lot of members of the House and the Senate felt that their constituencies, which were predominately white and predominately wealthy, weren’t getting any benefit from TOPS. And they felt like the same people who had access to Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and cash assistance were now also getting financial aid for college.”

While Dan Morrish, chairman of the state senate’s education committee, doesn’t think that race was the overriding concern of lawmakers then, he does think that the TOPS program has morphed into a middle-class entitlement program.

“I have constituents who tell me, ‘You know, it’s the only thing I get from government. I don’t qualify for anything else,’ ” said Morrish, a Republican from central Louisiana. “And there’s not a lot of thought, except in the legislature, about what’s happening with those who aren’t getting it.”

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In 2007, the state created a scholarship program just for low-income students like Rodney Woods. But so far, lawmakers have only committed to spending about a tenth of what they spend on TOPS for the Go Grant program.

Looking ahead

Nicholls State University President Jay Clune speaks to incoming freshmen during the CROWN orientation in Thibodaux, LA, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

This year, Woods, now a sophomore, is a man about campus: an active member of several clubs, a mentor to younger students and an intern in the school’s marketing department — a position that allows him to put his burgeoning photography skills to use.

He’s excited about being on campus full time, but worrying about whether he can graduate from Nicholls, still one of the most affordable public universities in the state, with less than $40,000 in student loan debt.

President Clune is encouraged that there have been no higher education budget cuts in the last two years. Clune and his team say they are building new programs that will help Nicholls’ most vulnerable students get across the graduation stage.

“If you have the money to pay for college, I feel like you should be paying for it, because there are people who really need that funding.”

A student-led club called CROWN, the Colonels Retention of Winners Network, is center stage in that effort. The club matches students with mentors to help African American men make it to graduation. Woods was part of the inaugural class last year and says that it helped him discover both his passion and his voice. As a freshman, he was pursuing criminal justice courses, but he floundered, and eventually confessed to his CROWN mentor his true passion — photography. “So my mentor took me to the art department, and I fell in love the moment I walked in there,” he said. “That same day I changed my major.”

CROWN enables young men like Woods to open up and share both their worries and dreams, and it transformed him: “It made me feel like I was welcome here, and I was more open and more social.”

Professor Farren Clark, coordinator for student-led club CROWN, speaks to incoming freshmen at Nicholls State University during the CROWN orientation in Thibodaux, LA, on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

Farren Clark, who coordinates CROWN in addition to his role teaching public speaking, says the program has already raised retention rates for African American males. Last year, CROWN lost only one student, a young man who had to withdraw from college because his family couldn’t afford the costs. That’s the challenge facing Clark and the university administration. While the program has been able to prepare students emotionally and academically for success in college, the biggest hurdle facing most of them is the cost.

Clune doesn’t advocate getting rid of the TOPS program, or restricting it to the poorest students. Without it, he worries that high-performing students like Ethan Henry might be lured away by other states. But he thinks lawmakers need to find new money for universities like his and programs like GO Grants.

Clune, meanwhile, focuses on what he can do on his own. He’s working to find private donors to create more university aid for low-income students.

In the meantime, Woods is watching the interest on his loans grow. He thinks it’s unfair that kids from lower-income families like his have to pay so much for college, while those with more attend tuition-free. “If you have the money to pay for college,” he said, “I feel like you should be paying for it, because there are people who really need that funding.”

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

TuitionTracker.org uses net price, which is calculated by subtracting federal, state, local and institutional grants and scholarships from the sticker price for first-time, full-time (and, at public universities, in-state) undergraduates. Net price data includes only families of students who received some form of federal student aid, including loans, since others are not tracked.

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Emmanuel Felton

Emmanuel Felton is a former staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World. He received a bachelor’s degree from...

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