Crown mentors Rodney Woods, Lashawn Lewis and Rowdy Scott speak to incoming freshmen at orientation at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. LA, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019.

This story about TOPS scholarship was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Rodney Woods was on the fence about applying to Nicholls State University, a four-year public institution a 20-minute walk from his mother’s house in Louisiana’s Bayou Region, a rural area of the state dotted with sugar cane fields and mud-colored swamps. He had been on campus a few times. Both he and his mother loved to practice their photography skills among the long-slung red-brick buildings clustered around the school’s tidy quad. 

Woods thought about going away to college, but he believed attending a local public school would save his family money. Even so, Nicholls, where tuition and fees reach toward $8,000 and room, board, textbooks and other expenses can add another $13,000 per year, would be pricey for a family that gets by on less than $10,000 a year. If accepted, he planned to live at home with his mother and younger brother to save money and walk or, if he was lucky, get a ride to school.

He was exactly the kind of student Nicholls hoped to attract. He had stellar grades in high school and is civic- minded, taking after his mother, who works as a community organizer in Thibodaux. But Woods’ financial aid only included a federal Pell Grant for low-income students and a $500 GO Grant. He would still have to take out about $3,500 in loans just for his first year. 

He was accepted and enrolled. But after a year, Woods realized that his college experience just wasn’t the same as that of his classmates who made friends in the dorms, hung out in the dining halls and stayed late into the night at the libraries. The 20-minute walk to school cut into time for studying and made it harder to get to know all the new faces. He decided to take out even more money to join them. This year, he’s planning to borrow almost $9,500, and the debt now stresses him out as much as midterm exams. 

“Over the time the money is really adding up with all the interest,” he said.

Woods’ story is the kind that both inspires and worries the university’s president, Jay Clune. Clune himself first arrived at Nicholls in the early 1980s, like Woods a local boy unsure of himself and of what he wanted to do with his life. But back in the 1980s, Clune didn’t have to dig himself into tens of thousands of dollars of debt to get the full Nicholls experience. For the school to continue to fulfill its mission as an engine of upward mobility for the Bayou Region, Clune said, state lawmakers must drastically change how they fund higher education. 

“I loved this place,” Clune said, “but it was a lot different then. My first semester, I think my tuition bill was $250. It doesn’t work that way anymore. After 10 years of budget cuts, we need more grants, we need more donors, we need more people who want to invest in these students’ lives.” 

When it comes to college affordability, for much of the last two decades, Louisiana lawmakers have effectively been taking from the poor to give to the rich. The state has made historically severe cuts to higher education, and the impact has been heaviest on students like Woods and colleges like Nicholls. Year after year, lawmakers have cut the amount of money they send to state universities, to the tune of a total of roughly $1 billion since 2008. With every budget cut, universities in turn raised tuition just to keep the doors open. But by and large, Louisiana’s middle-class and affluent students have been shielded from these ballooning tuition bills. That’s because lawmakers are spending over $300 million on a program known as TOPS. 

Data from The Hechinger Report’s shows that at public universities across the state, tuition bills have skyrocketed for the lowest-income students. For Nicholls students who come from families with incomes of less than $30,000 a year, the average cost of attendance has more than doubled, from $4,600 to nearly $10,000 per year, since 2009. For the highest-income students, whose families earn more than $110,000 per year, the cost of attendance has grown at a slower rate, from about $10,500 to $15,700. The same trend has taken hold at many state universities.

The TOPS scholarship was meant to provide Louisiana’s best and brightest with free tuition at any public university in the state, as a way to stem the state’s brain drain. Originally, the program had an income cap to ensure that it helped those who needed it most. But in the late 1990s, lawmakers removed that cap. Since then the program has morphed into one that largely benefits middle-class families and siphons much-needed funds away from poorer students. 

It’s a national trend: Hechinger reporting has found that for the last two decades the vast majority of selective public universities have reduced their percentage of students from the bottom 40 percent of the income scale. Most have increased their share of students from the top 20 percent of the income ladder. Half of the schools did both simultaneously, allowing wealthier students to enroll at the expense of poorer students. In 2017, nearly a million low-income students who applied for and were found eligible for state financial aid programs for college never received it, because states ran out of money, according to Hechinger reporting. In 10 states, including Delaware, Kansas, Illinois and Oregon, more than half of eligible students didn’t receive any money,. 

To get a TOPS scholarship in Louisiana a student needs a 2.5 GPA in “core” subjects and a score of 20 or above on the ACT exam, some of the lowest merit scholarship requirements in the country. But they’re often unattainable for the state’s lowest-income students and students of color, who tend to be clustered in severely struggling K-12 schools. Statewide, 81 percent of black Louisiana high school students attend a school where the average ACT score is below 20, while 58 percent of white students attend those schools, according to a Hechinger analysis. The average white ACT score in Louisiana in 2018 was 21.3; the average black score was 17.3.

TOPS’ windfall disproportionately goes to rich white students. According to a 2018 state audit, 74 percent of TOPS scholarship recipients were white and 43 percent hailed from families with six-figure incomes.

These numbers are striking in a state where, overall, 45 percent of public school students are white, 43 percent are black and 70 percent are economically disadvantaged. After 13 years of being failed by the state’s K-12 system, lower-income students are punished a second time by Louisiana’s higher education funding system. Advocates say some of the $300 million currently being used for TOPS would be much better spent on programs that help the state’s neediest students and the institutions that serve them. 

It’s not just poor families who are struggling to cope with the fallout from the budget cuts, but also the universities that disproportionally enroll them. At the same time that the state has been spending more money on TOPS, it has been cutting the amount of money it sends directly to state universities. Seemingly a world away from the “lazy river” that spells out L.S.U. on the campus of Louisiana State University, the state’s largely white flagship university in Baton Rouge, Nicholls State has at times struggled to provide its students with even basic services, laying off dozens of critical faculty and staff. Black students have been particularly hard hit. 

Nicholls is affectionately called “Harvard on the Bayou” for its track record of taking kids from some of the lowest-performing schools in the state and sending them off into middle-class careers. But it had to cut a number of critical programs during ten years of budget cuts from the state that followed the Great Recession. Those budget cuts were so severe at Nicholls that the school was paying more to the state of Louisiana for mandatory costs like insurance and retirement than it was getting from the legislature. The university’s six-year graduation rate for black students cratered to 22 percent in 2012. That number is now improving, but Clune said they’ll need a lot more support from the state to recover. Without much of an endowment, the school is relying almost entirely on tuition dollars. 

Tale of two high schools

It’s hard to argue that Ethan Henry isn’t among the state’s best and brightest. Just a sophomore, Henry has quickly become a leader on Nicholls’ campus. He’s active in student government and his fraternity. He’s an orientation leader and a student ambassador. Henry can’t seem to walk more than a few steps before being greeted by a fellow student. 

“One day we’re all going to get to decide whether we’re going to vote for Ethan for some public office,” said Farren Clark, who taught Henry in his public speaking class last year. 

An English major, Henry has stellar academic credentials. In high school, he earned a 3.8 GPA and a 29 on the ACT, a score in the 92nd percentile nationally. That qualified him for the most generous TOPS scholarship, which covers nearly his entire tuition bill and also gives him an annual $800 stipend. Louisiana is so generous to students like Henry that Nicholls is turning out to be considerably cheaper than what his parents were paying to send him to Vandebilt Catholic, a private high school nearby where tuition exceeds $7,000 per year. 

At Vandebilt, the requirements for TOPS were drilled into Henry, who is white, and his mostly white and middle-class classmates. “We have ACT prep classes to get you the highest score on the ACT, we have guidance counselors to talk to you constantly about TOPS,” he recalled. 

Rodney Woods had an entirely different experience at Thibodaux High School, where about one-third of students are black and two-thirds are low income. Like Henry, Woods excelled academically — he finished high school with a 4.0 GPA — but he struggled on the ACT. Despite his good grades, Woods, unlike Henry, didn’t enroll in his high school’s honors classes, which are disproportionately white, but instead enrolled in career tech courses like welding. When the ACT came around, he says that a lot of the material, especially in the math section, was simply foreign to him. He took the exam twice but could only score as high as 18 — two points shy of the cutoff to receive a TOPS scholarship that would have allowed him to go to Nicholls virtually tuition-free.

Henry’s and Woods’ stories illuminate the issues facing a region of haves and have-nots. While white families in the Bayou Region like the Henrys have incomes that match or exceed the national average, black families like Woods’ earn about a third of that amount or less. The college preparation that each young man received in high school — or lack thereof — reflects that disparity. 

Davante Lewis of the Louisiana Budget Project believes that the TOPS program is working just as lawmakers intended when they removed the income cap in 1997. “We had a bunch of lawmakers who just felt like the program was too black,” said Lewis, whose public policy group advocates for low- and middle-income families. “A lot of members of the House and the Senate felt that their constituencies, which were predominately white and predominately wealthy, weren’t getting any benefit from TOPS. And they felt like the same people who had access to Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and cash assistance were now also getting financial aid for college.”

While Dan Morrish, chairman of the state senate’s education committee, doesn’t think that race was the overriding concern of lawmakers then, he does think that the TOPS program has morphed into a middle-class entitlement program.  

“I have constituents who tell me, ‘You know, it’s the only thing I get from government. I don’t qualify for anything else,’ ” said Morrish, a Republican from central Louisiana. “And there’s not a lot of thought, except in the legislature, about what’s happening with those who aren’t getting it.” 

In 2007, the state created a scholarship program just for low-income students like Rodney Woods. But so far, lawmakers have only committed to spending about a tenth of what they spend on TOPS for the Go Grant program.

Looking ahead

This year, Woods, now a sophomore, is a man about campus: an active member of several clubs, a mentor to younger students and an intern in the school’s marketing department — a position that allows him to put his burgeoning photography skills to use. 

He’s excited about being on campus full time, but worrying about whether he can graduate from Nicholls, still one of the most affordable public universities in the state, with less than $40,000 in student loan debt.

President Clune is encouraged that there have been no higher education budget cuts in the last two years. Clune and his team say they are building new programs that will help Nicholls’ most vulnerable students get across the graduation stage. 

A student-led club called CROWN, the Colonels Retention of Winners Network, is center stage in that effort. The club matches students with mentors to help African American men make it to graduation. Woods was part of the inaugural class last year and says that it helped him discover both his passion and his voice. As a freshman, he was pursuing criminal justice courses, but he floundered, and eventually confessed to his CROWN mentor his true passion — photography. “So my mentor took me to the art department, and I fell in love the moment I walked in there,” he said. “That same day I changed my major.” 

CROWN enables young men like Woods to open up and share both their worries and dreams, and it transformed him: “It made me feel like I was welcome here, and I was more open and more social.” 

Farren Clark, who coordinates CROWN in addition to his role teaching public speaking, says the program has already raised retention rates for African American males. Last year, CROWN lost only one student, a young man who had to withdraw from college because his family couldn’t afford the costs. That’s the challenge facing Clark and the university administration. While the program has been able to prepare students emotionally and academically for success in college, the biggest hurdle facing most of them is the cost. 

Clune doesn’t advocate getting rid of the TOPS program, or restricting it to the poorest students. Without it, he worries that high-performing students like Ethan Henry might be lured away by other states. But he thinks lawmakers need to find new money for universities like his and programs like GO Grants. 

Clune, meanwhile, focuses on what he can do on his own. He’s working to find private donors to create more university aid for low-income students. 

In the meantime, Woods is watching the interest on his loans grow. He thinks it’s unfair that kids from lower-income families like his have to pay so much for college, while those with more attend tuition-free. “If you have the money to pay for college,” he said, “I feel like you should be paying for it, because there are people who really need that funding.” uses net price, which is calculated by subtracting federal, state, local and institutional grants and scholarships from the sticker price for first-time, full-time (and, at public universities, in-state) undergraduates. Net price data includes only families of students who received some form of federal student aid, including loans, since others are not tracked.