TOPS cuts weigh heavy on UL students

Photo Credit: KLFY

LAFAYETTE, La. (The Daily Advertiser) – Courtney Bergeron said getting shortchanged on TOPS funding in her senior year at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette imposed a hardship on her and her family.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the state’s college scholarship program for students who meet certain benchmarks for grades and ACT scores in high school, was a North Star for her. In high school at Hahnville, she was ever-cognizant of the standards needed to earn a scholarship; in college, studying public relations, she knew the TOPS standards she needed to meet to keep her state funding.

“I feel for the students who are just coming in,” Bergeron said. As a college freshman, she was certain of her TOPS scholarship; nowadays, she said, underclassmen are less certain.

Spring awards cut more than half

DeWayne Bowie, vice president for enrollment management at UL, said Bergeron is one of 7,000 UL students on TOPS, initiated two decades ago and fully funded until this year.

A Louisiana budget shortfall in Fiscal Year 2017 caused cutbacks in the program, which had grown as an annual state expense from about $50 million a year to $300 million. In the first semester, TOPS awards were paid out at about 93 percent; this semester, the awards are being paid at about 41 percent. Overall, students reaped about 67 percent of the TOPS scholarship benefit.

Reed Steva, a freshman from New Iberia majoring in exercise science, said the effect was “huge” for him.

In the fall, he said his student loans were “decent,” manageable. This spring, he said, he began to appreciate the weight that additional loans to meet expenses will bear on his finances.

“I’ll have a lot of debt when I graduate,” he said.

Some seeking additional jobs

John Crittenden, a freshman from Delcambre High School in Vermilion Parish, said he’s applied for additional scholarships and landed a second job to help pay the difference. He also pays for his own car and insurance, both necessary for a commuter student.

Bowie said UL has been planning for the TOPS shortfall since the Louisiana Legislature imposed that reality in 2016. He said UL has counseled students who are feeling the financial heat. The school is offering some additional campus jobs or work-study to fill the gap for some students.

He said the school has communicated with students and parents since last spring, advising them on loans — many students are wary of debt — and preparing them in advance for the cutbacks that were to come. Loans, he said, remain advisable for many students. Degrees are valuable.

But Bowie said many students and families were already facing hardships before TOPS was cut. Some have been affected by the downturn in oil and gas prices in recent years; the Lafayette Metropolitan Statistical Area led the nation in job losses last year.

Cataclysmic floods in north Louisiana in spring 2016 and south Louisiana in August also put some UL students and their families at additional financial disadvantage.

Regents, lawmakers await numbers

Joe Rallo, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, said Louisiana students had until Friday to opt out of their TOPS awards at no penalty this semester. The upside to such delay: Students would be eligible for TOPS awards, perhaps at full value, later. But a better deal is no sure thing.

Rallo said there is no model for projecting how many students will not register for classes this semester because of the TOPS cutbacks. He said the state Board of Regents, which oversees all of Louisiana higher education, will get that information later, perhaps by March.

He said state lawmakers will also want to know the effects of this semester’s cutbacks. He is higher education’s main lobbyist to the Legislature.

Bowie said UL has tightened up classes, merging sections to avoid half-empty classrooms.

For now, Bowie said, the TOPS setback doesn’t seem to be affecting UL recruiting for next year’s freshman class.

“We’re seeing no problems in numbers at all,” he said. “Students are applying.”

Despite TOPS cuts, UL was their school

Freshman Niya Davis, an Acadiana High School graduate and geology major, said she likely would have attended UL no matter the TOPS situation. Her mother attended UL, she said, and her hometown campus offers her major.

She also reaps some student aid as a member of the school band. But she said she feels the sting of losing a portion of her TOPS award.

“It feels like I worked for something that was taken away,” she said.

Bergeron, who works on campus as a guide, said high school students who tour campus frequently talk with her about TOPS. “What’s going on with TOPS?” is always a question she can’t answer.

Like Davis, though, she said she likely would have attended UL no matter TOPS’ status.

“I loved UL from the start,” she said. “This was always my school.”

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