Nearly 80 Southern University students received scholarships from Southern’s board members during the past two academic years under a little-known program, according to records obtained by The Lens under a public records request.

In all, 74 students — including the son of a Traffic Court judge in New Orleans and several athletes — received a total of 109 scholarships worth up to $2,000 apiece per year to study at Southern’s campuses in New Orleans, Shreveport and Baton Rouge, including its law school.

The “Educational Assistance Scholarships,” as Southern calls them, cost the state $87,663 in foregone tuition over the two-year period, the records show.

How students learn about the scholarships is not clear. Southern’s spokesman, Henry Tillman, said it wasn’t posted on the website, though The Lens found a PDF describing the program by Googling the scholarship’s formal name.

Some of the scholarships go unclaimed. While the board can award up to 38 scholarships per year, it gave only 30 in 2011-12 and 19 in 2012-13, Tillman said. Every student who applied got a scholarship.

The scholarships awarded by Southern’s board are a much smaller version of a similar program given by LSU’s Board of Supervisors.

As The Lens reported last week, LSU’s board awarded $1.3 million of scholarships in 2012-13 to study at one of the university’s undergraduate campuses or at one of its professional schools. Each board member can award up to 20 scholarships per year, with no more than two going to out-of-state students. The one-year value of the LSU scholarships ranges from $3,882 for in-state students to attend the Alexandria campus to $15,268 for out-of-state students to study at the main campus.

Southern’s more modest program began in 2001. Its board chair can award five $2,000 scholarships per year, its vice chair four, its past board chair three and its other 13 board members two each. The board members can divide the scholarships into increments as small as $100 per semester, so 10 students theoretically could divide a single scholarship.

When awarded in full, one of these scholarships can cover most or all of the tuition at Southern. Tuition in 2012-13 ranged from $1,623 at the Shreveport campus to $5,473 at the law school in Baton Rouge, according to university figures.

The scholarship money comes from payments to the state Office of Motor Vehicles for purchases of Southern specialty license plates.

The program has few restrictions. Undergrads must have at least a 2.0 grade point average to receive a scholarship while law students must have at least a 3.0 GPA. Board members cannot award scholarships to their own immediate family or to families of state legislators, statewide elected officials or members of Congress.

The Lens requested an interview with Board Chairwoman Bridget Dinvaut, but Tillman said in an email that Dinvaut “at this time, is not available for an interview.” Dinvaut is an assistant district attorney in St. John the Baptist Parish, according to Southern’s website.

Southern’s board members – as are LSU’s – are appointed by the governor to six-year terms, except for the student member who serves a one-year term. None of them is paid, but Southern’s board members receive up to eight free tickets to the university’s home football games in Baton Rouge, Tillman said.

Both Southern and LSU are required to begin posting a list of the scholarship recipients awarded by each board member under a measure approved unanimously by the state Legislature during the past session that Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law. State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, sponsored it in an effort to bring greater transparency to both scholarship programs.

LSU has already posted the list. Southern, which has until Aug. 1, has yet to do so.

Among Southern’s 74 scholarship recipients during the past two years was Ronald Sholes Jr., whose father Ronald Sr. is a judge on the New Orleans Traffic Court and is a partner at the Adams & Reese law firm.

Sholes Sr. said he was unaware that his son had the Southern scholarship, which was for the 2013 semester and was worth no more than $1,000.

“He’s paying his own way,” Sholes Sr. said. “I didn’t want him to go law school. I don’t think the job market is good for lawyers.”

Sholes Sr. added: “My son is almost 30. This is something he really desires to do. I think he has loans up the wazoo.”

Sholes Sr. did not want to put The Lens in touch with his son, saying he was studying for exams.

Tony Clayton, an attorney based in Port Allen, is the board member who awarded the scholarship to Sholes Jr.

Sholes Sr. said Clayton has never appeared in court before him. Clayton said the same thing.

Clayton said he spoke at a Southern law school event eight or nine months ago and was impressed by questions asked by Sholes Jr.

Clayton said that Sholes Jr. introduced himself afterward and expressed interest in obtaining a scholarship.

“He seems to be an aggressive kid,” Clayton said. “I might consider hiring him some day.”

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....