By Richard Barth, KIPP Foundation CEO
This post originally appeared on Medium.
Isaiah is a senior at KIPP Renaissance High School and an alum of KIPP Believe College Prep in New Orleans. He is the student body president as well as a member of the baseball and track teams. He has a 3.35 GPA and a 21 cumulative ACT. He also attends early college classes at Bard College.
Since Isaiah entered high school, he and his family have strived towards the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS. TOPS is a state-sponsored, merit-based scholarship program for students who attend college in Louisiana. It was originally conceived as a needs-based scholarship program, providing financial support to students who could not otherwise afford college.
Over time, TOPS has expanded to provide scholarships for any Louisiana student achieving a 2.5 GPA and a 20 cumulative ACT score. Currently, more than 40 percent of students who receive TOPS scholarships come from families with incomes above $100,000. This has dramatically increased the cost of the program.
With his academic record, Isaiah more than qualifies for TOPS. But now the opportunity is being pulled out from under him.
This summer, in response to a $2 billion budget deficit, the Louisiana Legislature significantly reduced TOPS funding. Now, students will get only 70 percent of the total scholarship amount. During the 2016–17 academic year, funding will be front-loaded: students will receive a full TOPS award in the fall, but will only receive 42 percent of their award in the spring semester.
For students like Isaiah, this profoundly affects how and whether they can pay for college.
For Students in College, A Financial Scramble
For the past ten years, TOPS has been an integral part of KIPP New Orleans students’ college funding plans. For the past ten years, KIPPsters across grade levels have set GPA and ACT goals specifically in order to earn TOPS scholarships.
The sudden cut to TOPS puts students’ futures in jeopardy. For example:
- There are currently 13 KIPP alumni at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) who received TOPS scholarships.
- ULL’s tuition is around $24,000 per year, $5,000 of which would normally be covered by TOPS.
- If TOPS awards are reduced to 40 percent of their full amount in the spring semester, families will have to come up with an additional $1,500 for the year. That’s more than 6 percent of the average annual income for a family of four living at the poverty line.
- Most of these ULL students are already maxed out on Pell grants, subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
- With the TOPS cuts, parents would be forced to take out Parent Plus loans, which for many would push their total debt load to over $10,000 per year — a level of debt we recommend against.
The number one reason our students leave college is finances. A high debt load tangibly increases students’ stress levels and can affect how they do academically. The worst-case scenario is that a student incurs a high debt load and then has to drop out, leaving them unable to transfer somewhere else. With the TOPS cuts, that becomes a more likely scenario.
Losing Louisiana’s Top High School Seniors
The TOPS cuts are affecting high school students too. For current seniors, Louisiana is no longer more attractive for financial reasons, and our top-performing students will be less likely to stay in state.
For example, 20 students from KIPP Renaissance High School’s current senior class would be eligible for TOPS. Now every single one of them is seriously looking at options outside the state. As Isaiah says, “If I have to take out loans anyway, why wouldn’t I go somewhere where they’re actually investing in their students?”
Given KIPP’s commitment to improving and empowering our community, we do not want our students to feel like they need to leave Louisiana in order to attend college. While they will still have opportunities to be successful at out-of-state institutions, our community loses out if these top students — our future leaders — leave and don’t return.
A Better Solution
This isn’t the only way the legislature could ease the budget deficit. As part of the Louisiana College Access Coalition, an alliance of educators and nonprofit organizations, KIPP New Orleans Schools is advocating for a different kind of TOPS reform proposal. The proposal would create a tiered funding plan for TOPS based on financial need, preserving full funding for qualifying students from the lowest-income families.
This proposal brings TOPS back to its original purpose: helping students from underserved backgrounds get access to college. As Tulane University professor Douglas N. Harris explained in a recent op-ed, making TOPS need-based would save the state money while still getting funds to the students who rely on them most. Students like Isaiah.
Isaiah is pushing forward with the school search. His college wish list is almost all out-of-state schools. He’s working to find other sources of scholarship support. And he’s worried about his peers, and the younger KIPPsters who will follow, who now feel like Louisiana has turned its back on them.
A National Challenge
College affordability is not a Louisiana-specific problem; it is impacting access to and persistence in higher education for students across the country. When state universities are no longer viable options for the young people who they were meant to serve, we should not be surprised that families wonder if the American Dream is still alive. Make sure that your voice is heard on this issue come Election Day — keep the dream alive.
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