Nicki Minaj Doesn’t Get Louisiana Off the Hook for its Broken Promises to Students

What is known today as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, began as one man’s vision. Patrick F. Taylor believed that all academically-qualified students deserved the opportunity to attend college, regardless of their families’ financial situations. With this belief, the Taylor Plan took shape as a contract between students and states (photo and text from Patrick F. Taylor Foundation website, emphasis mine).

The feel-good story about Nicki Minaj paying the tuition balance for a UL Lafayette student hit my Twitter feed on Sunday night with this tweet from UL Lafayette’s official Twitter account.

State news media picked up on it soon afterward.

But the first question I asked myself was, how much of a balance does this student have at the end of the semester, and why?

I went to the original Twitter thread from Saturday night. Artavion Cook, a first-year UL Lafayette student, tweeted Nicki Minaj a screenshot of his remaining balance for the year – almost $1,200. And Nicki Minaj agreed to pay it. Her additional condition was that students have straight As, so this also tells me Artavion is a really good student.

$1,200 seemed to me a pretty big balance to have at the end of the academic year, especially for students who have TOPS scholarships and need-based aid. According to the screenshot, the student’s balance was last assessed about 30 days ago. Students with balances have holds on their accounts preventing them from doing things like registering for classes, or if classes are scheduled prior to the hold, they will eventually get purged for non-payment. After 60 days, student debts can get referred to the state Attorney General for collections. Students with unpaid balances are at extremely high risk to “stop out” of college – and more often than not, not just for one semester but for a lifetime.

I sent a series of Tweets… which Artavion liked and retweeted…

Which told me I was onto something.

I also saw this…

artavion

Which tells me that Artavion’s situation is by no means unique, and in fact, he probably goes to school with students who are in much worse shape than him.

I PMed him asking if it was ok to write a blog about this. He said yes.

I asked if he was on TOPS or any other financial aid. He replied that his balance was after TOPS, Pell Grant, Go Grants and other financial aid. He also said, “Colleges in LA are not affordable enough especially with the TOPS cuts… So many students didn’t come back to UL this spring & I believe it’s because of the TOPS cuts.”

But as I’ve argued here before, TOPS is a straw man for what is going on with higher education in our state. After just one year of being “fully funded,” we stopped funding higher education appropriately once the Stelly Act was repealed early in the Jindal administration. TOPS used to be a separate budget and it was rolled in as part of higher education funding at around the same time. Then for every tuition dollar raised under the GRAD Act legislation, higher education institutions had their allocations cut. These cuts were not one-to-one cuts because institutions also send back much of what they receive in allocations in mandated costs (see p. 4).

So not only do institutions fund their own allocations, tuition dollars increasingly fund higher education operations and other state costs which may not even have anything to do with higher education. Tuition has become a tax, just levied on our students. While UL Lafayette, LSU, and some of our other larger universities enroll a high proportion of TOPS recipients, our smaller regionals, HBCUs, and community colleges do not enroll as many TOPS students but instead award proportionally more need-based aid. And more students at these institutions don’t qualify for anything at all for a variety of reasons, even if they can’t afford to go to school. So they lose out even more because they are still losing funding and their students are less able to shoulder tuition increases.

While there is a valid argument for restructuring TOPS since it has increasingly become a middle to upper class entitlement, Artavion may be exactly the type of student Patrick Taylor had in mind when he established his scholarship. Artavion also receives both a Pell and a Go Grant, which means that his family’s EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is less – perhaps far less – than it would take to go to college. Taylor believed that “all academically-qualified students deserved the opportunity to attend college, regardless of their families’ financial situations.

And we as a state took on that challenge. It was a promise that we made to our kids. Study hard, get good grades, take the right courses, and do well on the ACT, and you will be able to go to college in our state regardless of your family’s financial situation.

So let’s look at a hypothetical UL student who receives TOPS, full Pell, and a full Go Grant. These all together should be able to cover the entire cost of attendance… right?

Back in 2007-8, so the year Jindal was elected (and the year that Stelly was repealed), the average cost of attendance at UL Lafayette was $12,064. In Spring 2009, the year that the Stelly repeal took effect, UL Lafayette full-time tuition and fees was $1,709. This spring it is now $4,713 – an increase of $3,000 in just eight years.

But it takes more than tuition to go to college. Students need books, need to live somewhere, need to eat something…

The total estimated cost of attendance at UL Lafayette this academic year is $23,270. This is an increase of over $10,000 from nine years ago, the year we repealed the Stelly Plan.

Here’s how it falls out for a hypothetical student with TOPS, Go Grant and Pell – after factoring in this year’s TOPS cut:

  Fall 16 Spring 17
TOPS 2515.86 1130.05
Max Pell 2907.50 2907.50
Max Go Grant (UL Lafayette) 1500.00 1500.00
TOTAL TOPS/Pell/Go Grant 6923.36 5537.55
     
Tuition/Fees (12 credits) 4713.00 4713.00
Housing (cheapest on-campus) 2141.00 2141.00
Meal Plan (mandatory; cheapest on-campus plan) 869.00 869.00
TOTAL TUITION/HOUSING/MEALS 7723.00 7723.00
Difference

(not including books, transportation, other college-related expenses)

799.74 2186.00

 

Total for the year beyond TOPS and maximum aid: $2985.74. And this does not include books or other expenses.

Three grand may not sound like a lot of money to some of my readers. I also know that students who do not get full Pell grants or full Go Grants (the latter because Go Grants are perpetually underfunded) are paying far more than this.

But for a student from a low-income family qualifying for Pell and Go Grants, even amounts far less than this can easily keep someone from returning to college for Year 2 (or 3, or 4…). Or from going in the first place.

Artavion is from North Louisiana so he also lives on campus. Someone could argue that he could have just stayed at home instead of going away to school. Artavion is a kinesiology major and LSUS also has a kinesiology program – although it is a bit different from UL Lafayette’s in that it leads to a degree in Community Health. UL Lafayette also has five concentrations to choose from. In addition, students who live on campus tend to do better in school, and even though this requirement is waived for students who live at home, technically most universities in our state require that college freshmen live on campus for exactly this reason. This is assuming, of course, that living at home was even an option. But fair enough, let’s imagine for a minute that we are now telling Artavion, sorry, if you want to afford to go to school you not only have to stay in-state but stay at home to do it. Would he be able to if he weren’t living on campus?

According to LSUS, the estimated cost of attendance for a student living at home is $15,829. (The cost for a student living on campus is $21,674, so not that much below UL Lafayette.) Someone receiving TOPS, maximum Pell, and Go Grants, even living at home, still won’t receive enough to cover the entire cost of attendance. I’m not going to say exactly what town Artavion is from other than to say that it is about a 45 minute drive away from LSUS, and about an hour from LaTech and Grambling. So it is very likely that even if he had chosen to go to a school closer to home, living on-campus still might have been a better option especially factoring in gas, vehicle expenses, and time. Plus – since he is a good student, you can’t argue with success. He is exactly the kind of student that TOPS was supposed to help. And is. Or at least was.

We made a promise to him, and to his family.

He held up his end of the bargain.

And we broke that promise.

Even if TOPS ends up getting fully funded this coming year, we still broke that promise. Because fully funding TOPS will still mean that higher education allocations will get cut, and may also mean that someone else’s health will suffer (or worse) if they are funded with the draconian health care cuts that are being proposed. So we have a choice between Artavion’s going to college, or someone else’s health.

Both people are our state’s future. They shouldn’t be pitted against each other. We shouldn’t have to make this choice.

And there is no guarantee that with next year’s fiscal cliff looming, again, that TOPS won’t be on the chopping block, again.

This isn’t prudent governance. This is hostage taking.

I’m really glad that Nicki Minaj did what she did for Artavion Cook and 19 other struggling college students across our country. Because college is becoming increasingly unaffordable across the nation, not just here, and she recognized that.

But I’m also really sad.

Because Nicki Minaj should not be the one making good on a promise that WE made to our state’s kids – to Taylor’s kids – because we decided we don’t want pay for it anymore. Because we decided – despite whatever we say to the contrary – that only those with the means to go to college have the right to go.

Because how many other students will go home this summer with a balance on their accounts that they and their families will not be able to pay, and as a result not go back to school this fall… or ever?

One more thing… According to KFLY and the Advertiser,

Our hats are definitely off to Nicki Minaj today as often times the most powerful influence on a young person is often another young person who has reached the height of their career.

I’m sure this wasn’t meant this way, but to me this sounds really condescending. And completely misses the point.

Artavion Cook did not need Nicki Minaj’s “influence” to get in, stay in, or do well in school. Nor did the other students that Nicki Minaj helped, nor the other students that Artavion was steering her way for help before realizing that he too could use some help.

They needed her money.

Because we as a state and as a nation have largely decided, in the middle of the game no less, that higher education is no longer a public good but just a nice to have if you can afford it.

What kind of “influence” does that make the rest of us? What message are we sending?

You can go to college, Patrick F. Taylor said.

Well, maybe not, we said.

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