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TOPS program
John Bel Edwards hugs his wife after taking the oath of office as Louisiana governor on the steps of the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. Edwards is Louisiana’s 56th governor. Credit: AP Photo/Max Becherer, Pool

Americans tend to treat high school graduates heading to college like baby birds leaving the nest  — we cross our fingers and hope we taught them how to fly.

Sadly, it looks like low-income students in Louisiana are about to get their wings clipped.

The Bayou State’s cash-strapped government is considering raising the required minimum ACT score needed for the Taylor Opportunity Scholarship Program and could lift that score as high as 28, from its current 20. Other potential changes to the program — which is known as TOPS — include reductions in scholarship amounts and requiring non-completers to pay back the award.

Louisiana is digging itself into an economic ditch by making it more difficult for its low-income residents to get a college degree.

If Louisiana wants to improve its economy, it must remove income inequalities, and colleges can be a model of that for the state.

Low-income and black graduates in both Louisiana and the rest of the U.S. are already at a disadvantage. Income is predictor for achievement on standardized tests, and blacks, particularly in the Louisiana, are more likely to be poor.

New Orleans public school students, who are categorically disadvantaged, need college degrees to have a chance in a city that’s becoming more difficult for poor folk to live in.

The Data Center of New Orleans found that a larger share — 11 percent — of full-time, year-round workers in the New Orleans metro area earn less than $17,500 per year, compared with only 8 percent nationally. Female workers residing in New Orleans proper are more likely than male workers to earn low wages. According to 2014 Census data, more than 63,000 working women in New Orleans earned less than $17,500 in the prior 12 months through either full-time or part-time work.

Poverty is worse now than it was before Hurricane Katrina. Housing prices are pushing black folk away from the urban core. The portion of households paying more than 50 percent of their household income on rent and utilities increased to 33 percent in 2013 from 22 percent in 2004. In New Orleans, rents ballooned to $925 per month in 2013 from $698 to per month in 2004. All of these factors influence how well students score on standardized achievement tests. And by the way, tuition keeps going up.

In addition, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling found that students with elevated high school GPAs and low standardized test scores generally do well in colleges.

Yet the state is considering raising the ACT requirement?

Poor students who may no longer qualify for TOPS will be compelled to take out loans or work additional hours at low-wage jobs, both of which reduce students’ chances of graduating on time.

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A state scholarship can give low-income families a much-needed leg up. The highest award covers tuition and certain fees at any of the Louisiana public colleges and pays out an $800 stipend. The state’s current budget crisis actually gives elected officials a chance to prioritize TOPS for low-income students who need it.

The last thing legislators should do is remove the ladder to the middle class.

Instead, legislators’ recommendations will have colleges become finishing schools for the rich.

Ahead of his budget proposal, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards warned of cuts to TOPS. The program is short approximately $238 million. The only occasion to raise taxes and hence plug revenue will be in a special legislative session in June, just weeks before college classes begin.

The scholarship program already had some serious limitations. About 50,000 students in Louisiana receive some form of the scholarships; only 17 percent are black. Not surprisingly, the scholarship’s recipients are predominantly white (79 percent), female (59 percent) and come from middle- and upper-income families. The Louisiana Board of Regents 2015 Report on TOPS found that “since 2005, the number of TOPS recipients that came from households with incomes of $150,000 or more has more than doubled; whereas, the number of recipients from lower-income households has remained relatively stagnant over time.” The rich keep getting richer.

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TOPS should be awarded based on societal and individual needs, not by how privileged you are.

The scholarships must be restricted to low-income, high-achieving students. I also agree with James Wharton, professor and chancellor emeritus, who argues that we should reduce and control tuition.

Scholarships should enable families to participate in the economy. TOPS currently rewards people who already participate. For instance in New Orleans, whites are twice as likely to have at least an associate degree than blacks in the metropolitan area, and the aforementioned economic disparities show it. The state drags nationally because it refuses to build capacity among those who can actually add more productivity to the state.

Like many educational and economic experts across the country, I’ve argued that in a knowledge economy, states should subsidize the first two years of college like it’s the 13th and 14th grades. All residents should go to college for free. And students who may not be prepared for college should get the funds to catch them up. The last thing legislators should do is remove the ladder to the middle class. The proposals on the table do just that.

Being poor should not mean that you lose the right to go to college.

If Louisiana is serious about eliminating income inequality and improving the state, changes to TOPS can’t come on the backs of the people who need it most. Colleges must model the change we want to see throughout the state.

Let’s restrict TOPS to low-income, high-achieving students.

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.

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