During a recent visit to my old neighborhood in New Orleans, where I lived for seven years as president of Dillard University, I had the opportunity to speak with students about their plans to attend college in Louisiana. These students’ aspirations are critically important to the mission of the organization I now lead, United Negro College Fund — the country’s largest provider of scholarships to students of color — and critically important to the future of Louisiana.

I was dismayed to learn that Louisiana’s TOPS program, the leading state scholarship program for students attending Louisiana colleges, is at serious risk.

Until last year, TOPS awards covered full tuition and adjusted automatically to rising tuition costs. But now, TOPS is in danger of meeting the fate of similar programs across the country that face high demand for a limited supply of dollars.

Cuts to the TOPS program would disproportionately impact students from low-income, high-need families as well as first-generation college students. When financial aid is slashed, these students are less likely to pursue college than students from middle- or high-income families.

Research shows that providing financial aid to college-bound students in general, and prioritizing aid to lower-income students in particular, yields a greater return on our investment, helping our young people get the education they need and Louisiana needs them to have. Financially empowering students not only opens doors to high-quality postsecondary institutions, but it also boosts social mobility, increases their chance to earn a living wage and improves a state’s economy.

The Louisiana Legislature is currently debating the future of TOPS. Though many proposals are being considered, House Bill 390 originally stood out as an equitable and effective reinvestment plan. Under this proposal, if full funding for all students is unavailable, students from low-income households and the state’s highest achievers would receive full awards, and the remaining funds will be distributed among other eligible students. Unfortunately, HB 390 stalled in committee; it’s disheartening to see legislators turn their backs on students across Louisiana when this measure would expand access to college education to working class families.

While I’m disappointed that HB 390 did not advance, there is still work to do to expand college access to every student who wishes to pursue a college degree. I implore Louisiana lawmakers to take another look at the future of TOPS and the students who need the help that this program offers.

Call, write or email your legislator and the governor right now to voice your support for fully funding TOPS. After all, to quote UNCF’s iconic motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in.” 

Michael L. Lomax

president and chief executive officer, UNCF

Washington, D.C.