Who Comes Out on TOPS?

College financial aid office will have to make up for the difference

By Jae Lee

Jada Hunter, a senior at Edna Karr High School, sits at a coffee shop in her school uniform rhythmically tapping her feet on the floor. A percussionist, she dreams of joining the Louisiana State University band while studying Public Health. But first, she has to be able to finance LSU’s tuition and fees of over $30,000 a year.

Higher education in New Orleans is in danger of sinking, and not because the city is below sea-level. On February 11th, Governor of Louisiana John Bel Edwards put the media and many college students on edge by announcing that the administration could no longer pay for the state’s TOPS scholarship program.

A Student in Trouble

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) is a merit-based scholarship that pays for qualifying students to attend Louisiana’s colleges and universities. For public universities, this means full tuition. For private universities such as Tulane and Loyola, it means any range of partial scholarships including money for textbooks and fees. However, with increases in tuition costs over the years and in the number of recipients (currently about 50,000 students), this distinct state program has become an enormous burden on the state’s budget, costing over $265 million in 2015 alone. Now, Gov. Edwards is proposing that it be cut down by more than half of that amount.

Jada made a 20 on the ACT, the current minimum score to be eligible to receive a TOPS scholarship. High school students who get a score of 20 and maintain a 2.5 GPA are guaranteed to have their tuition paid for a Louisiana public school. This award is increased by $400 for students who make a 23, and by $800 for students who make a 27. However, with Governor Edwards threatening to cut the budget for TOPS by 80%, these requirements may have to change.

“I was raised only by my mother, who is a teacher. She’s got three other kids and I’m the oldest,” explained Jada. “I knew if I didn’t try to get TOPS, it would be really hard for me to go to school even if I got some financial aid. And if they make the ACT score requirement higher, I’m not going to get it,” she said.

TOPS was started for students just like Jada in 1989. Patrick Taylor saw the necessity of encouraging low-income kids to prepare for college, and promised a classroom full of eighth-graders that if they maintained a B average, he would pay for them to go to college. The “Taylor Plan” was quickly adopted by the state. It became the Louisiana College Tuition Plan, and then changed to the Tuition Assistance Plan (TAP) in 1992. At this time, the program had an income cap. Now, the income cap has been eradicated, hurting the same population that the award was originally meant to assist.

In order to get the prestige back, many people have pushed for years for TOPS to raise the standards of the award. Previously a discreet need-based award, it has now become criticized for rewarding average and below average students who would be able to afford college regardless. While TOPS rewards students with at least a 2.5 GPA, similar programs in Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi require at least a 3.0 or 3.5. The talk of making TOPS more selective has recently included that the ACT requirement become a 28 instead of a 20. While such a change might lower the cost to the state, it would also have a huge negative impact on New Orleans students like Jada.

“My mom was proud when I made a 20,” she said. “I felt pretty good about it, too. None of my friends have above a 26, and we’re all smart, we all make good grades and do our work.”

81% of Louisiana’s financial aid is merit based, meaning that despite her financial situation, Jada must achieve on the same level as her wealthier counterparts, many of whom have benefitted from resources like private schooling.  From the Louisiana Budget Project Website:

Today, 72 percent of all TOPS recipients come from families that make $50,000 or more per year, well over the median income for Louisiana; fully 39 percent come from families that make $100,000 or more per year. This is a questionable allocation of scarce state resources in a state in which 56 percent of households make less than $50,000 while only 16 percent make more than $100,000.

That being said, recipients of TOPS are predominately white and middle/upper class. Jada and the majority of her friends are working class, African American students. Because the ACT is a test that favors those with income high enough to afford tutors, classes, and simply the right environment, a raise in the minimum ACT score for TOPS could further increase this racial gap, and severely hinder the working class (even more) when it comes to higher education.

What This Could Mean for New Orleans

Only about one-third of high school seniors in New Orleans make a high enough ACT score to qualify for TOPS, according to the NOLA Education Index. Looking solely at the Recovery School District (which serves 90% economically disadvantaged students, and 95% Black students), that number drops to less than 20%.

Dr. Sundy Barjon, a guidance counselor at Edna Karr, described the discouraging impact that budget cuts on TOPS could have for students. “Many students get TOPS right now, but many students don’t.” she said. “Some feel very intimidated by the ACT as it is, and if they find out they need a 28 they might lose the motivation to try at all.” Dr. Barjon suggested, as others do, that TOPS be replaced by a need-based program. “These kids have gotten the short end of the stick all of their lives, and now the one thing they thought they could count on from the state is being taken away?”

Kayla Jackson, a current TOPS recipient, New Orleans native, and junior at Tulane has similar feelings. With a 22 on the ACT and 4.0 high-school GPA, she receives about $2,500 from TOPS to cover college fees and books. She uses the remaining money to help out with family and home expenses.

In her words, “TOPS is a privilege, but at the same time, it’s a right. After four years of strenuous academic work, it’s something that they owe us. Louisiana is already a state that has a poor education system. Therefore, TOPS affords students better opportunities to pay for college when university merit-scholarship opportunities focus solely on even higher ACT and SAT scores. Students in Louisiana and especially New Orleans are not behind because they are inadequate, but because they do not have equitable opportunities to begin with.”

More on Students and Less on Inmates

Everything seems to be cyclical. In conversations about the Louisiana education system (and specifically New Orleans), the issues of the high expenses paid to the prison system often come up. As the budget for TOPS is threatened to be cut to $65 million, the budget for the prisons has been increasing from $600 million since 2012. There are many factors that link schools and prisons, and Dr. Barjon stated that “if the state would invest more on students and less on inmates, Louisiana would not have these issues in the first place. The students I work with are expected to go to jail way before they’re expected to go to college.”

Funding for TOPS came into question under the previous governor, Bobby Jindal. In June of 2015, Jindal vetoed a bill that was meant to cut back on TOPS expenses: TOPS would no longer cover fluctuations in tuition. With college costs rising each year, it was inevitable that the TOPS fund would get out of hand, but then-Gov. Jindal seemed to incorrectly estimate how many students would qualify for the scholarship in the years to come when he vetoed this bill. Now, Gov. Edwards is taking drastic measures to get the attention of the public to the state debt, and boy does he have it.

Jada, who has rarely gone a day without having to think about money, said that she can understand changes to TOPS. “Scholarships should mean something, right? They should be special. If over half of the students at LSU have TOPS, then what does it really mean? However, there needs to be something that’s not just based on test scores. The state should want to help the people who are really struggling, yet they seem to keep finding ways to make it harder for us instead.”

Jada proposed that TOPS be put back to what Patrick Taylor had in mind when he created it, to benefit struggling students. “Louisiana can start a separate one based on high merit.”

One of the original Taylor’s Kids, whose name made the front cover of the newspaper when the whole fund began, was Naima Bastian. She agrees with Jada. “It wasn’t even about helping Black kids, it was about helping poor kids,” she explained. “Our class had Whites and Hispanics in it too, just from a poor area. Now, the scholarship doesn’t even help them.” Naima, who attended Southern University with the help of Taylor, knows the importance of giving hope to those who view college as completely off the table. “Some of us knew that we would never be able to afford college. So our mentality in school was just kind of… why bother?”

Naima does note that be it this year or the next, TOPS must eventually change. She believes that since the program is no longer helping who it was made for, cuts can be made to it as long as something need-based is put into place.

What’s Gonna Happen?

Right now, TOPS is paying 80% of what it already promised to current recipients this spring, leaving universities to cover the remaining 20%. With the prospect of this only being the start of a huge new financial burden on the schools and the students, larger cuts are bound to follow from these institutions to make up for the change.

While the TOPS decision is up in the air, Jada and her family are already trying to make plans for alternative sources of funding such as highly competitive scholarships and loans. Need-based scholarship programs funded by the state, such as the Louisiana Scholarship Program, have many rules, guidelines, and forms and only accept a little more than half of their applicants. These other awards can be time consuming and discouraging to apply for, and Jada worries that she will not receive one. Most of all, Jada and her family just want a decision to be made so that they don’t have to keep hanging in the balance.

Jae Lee is a sophomore at Tulane studying Linguistics and English, and minoring in French.