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In an open letter she read out at a rally last week, New Orleans high school senior Karriem Bennett (justifiably) protested the amount in TOPS financial aid Tulane University told her she’d likely receive next year: a measly $2. But if the Louisiana legislature fully funds the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the state merit scholarship program, Bennett would be eligible for $5,567. Even if the program faced cuts, she would still probably receive a great deal more than the cost of a cup of joe.
But legislators are still figuring out how much TOPS funding they can expect to receive from Louisiana’s revenue-starved budget. There is an easy fix: Put an income cap on eligibility, as one bill proposes. More than 41 percent of current TOPS recipients come from families who earn $100,000 or more a year according to the Louisiana College Access Coalition, a group of colleges, schools and non-profits. Since the TOPS income cap was removed in 1997, the program has spiraled away from its original intent of uplifting low-income students.
But as legislators debate a solution, Tulane and other universities are passing on that uncertainty to incoming students in their financial aid statements.
That’s a pretty inauspicious way to start a relationship.
Imagine you’re a low-income student trying your best to pay for college. As another letter writer, Miya Thomas of Walter L. Cohen College Prep, wrote in her appeal to Rep. Nancy Landry, “When you’re in your dorm room you will need things in your room, kitchen, and your bathroom. As you add all that up together, that’s like one of your bills.” That, of course, is on top of tuition, money for books, food and lodging. You’re already fiscally and psychologically insecure, which decreases your likelihood of graduating. Now you get a letter from your university that you’re only getting $2 in TOPS funding. Up to 40 percent of low-income students who are accepted to college in the spring aren’t present for classes in the fall. If you receive a letter like the one Karriem Bennett got, will you be one of them?
Bennett’s case isn’t isolated. Louisiana isn’t the only state to do what Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, one of the largest scholarship foundations in the United States , says is a “Robin Hood in reverse” — using financial aid dollars for students who don’t need them. (The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report.) And Tulane isn’t the only university that can learn a few things about how to communicate with low-income students.
Bennett and other low-income students need information and resources that assuage their anxieties related to affordability. First-generation collegians in particular aren’t familiar with the financial aid jargon, complex processes and computer-generated forms associated with college funding.
Valuing low-income students starts with making human connections. But in an era of efficiency, computer-generated financial aid estimates relinquish the human connection that might soothe a jittery student’s fears. Students need someone to translate the technical terms that college officials take for granted. From a customer-service perspective, you want a real person help families navigate TOPS.
But it’s hard to imagine how anyone could justify the $2 figure on Bennett’s financial aid award letter. The goal is to enroll students not scare them away.
Though Tulane isn’t the only university putting an unreasonably low amount as a placeholder for the TOPS award (Dillard University put in $0 and there may be more institutions taking this approach), others are dealing with the potential cuts to TOPS differently. This is partly a reflection of these institutions’ familiarity and support of low-income students. Louisiana State University and Xavier University, for instance, are projecting last year’s amounts — an estimate that’s responsive to low-income students’ needs. Loyola University New Orleans is much more sanguine that TOPS will be fully funded in their materials to students.
TOPS is awarded based on eligibility criteria that’s clearly delineated so all the scholarship awards should be the same, regardless of institution. But students admitted to these in-state institutions are receiving very different messages about how much they are going to get. Students need clarity, especially those who are new to the college financial aid game.
Clarity is good. Commitment is better.
Of course, colleges need to plan their budgets as well. Listing last year’s amount seems reasonable. Financial aid letters aren’t just lists of what students are going to receive — they are statements about who and what a university values. A university that is committed to low-income students can put realistic estimates in writing.
Bennett, Thomas and others look at how colleges are dealing with this TOPS indecision as an indication of how colleges will treat them in the future.
On a technical point, public universities in Louisiana currently don’t release their financial aid award letters until mid-summer, unlike their private peers that release them in the spring. This year, the federal government opened the common application for federal funding eligibility, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), three months earlier than the usual January 1 date. This is a permanent change. Louisiana’s public postsecondary institutions should establish their tuitions earlier so they, too, can issue financial aid letters in the spring. How can students compare and contrast institutions when they don’t know how much they will cost?
Passing funding uncertainty on to students is unacceptable. Prioritizing scholarship dollars for low-income students would be a step in the right direction. Fixing the timing of financial aid letters and eliminating absurd “placeholder” numbers would be another. Filling the hole in the financial aid package would also help — even if it’s with a letter of apology.