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College Tuition Crisis

College Tuition Crisis

I am a resident of the state of Louisiana and I work at a state university (there goes some of my anonymity!). One of the major headlines this semester was our state's inability to rein in the budget and forthcoming cuts to a popular college aid program called TOPS.

What's TOPS? When I moved to Louisiana to attend college as a junior transfer student from another state, I didn't know what it was either.

TOPS, or the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is a sweet deal for Louisiana college students. As a high school senior, you can apply if you have taken "college prep" coursework (i.e. closely aligned with state diploma requirements), have a 2.5 or higher GPA, and a ACT average of 20 or more. Students can renew this award for 8 semesters if they maintain full-time status and finish each semester with a 2.0 or higher GPA. There is no financial need component to a student's eligibility for the program (and, unfortunately, it appears the program has disproportionately helped upper middle class, white students).

What's the award amount? Spring 2016 tuition at the state's flagship school, Louisiana State University (LSU), for 12 units is $3,757.55. The lowest tier TOPS award for Spring 2016 pays $3,548.39. Students with higher GPAs and ACT scores are eligible for a larger award and for a yearly stipend of $400-$800.

If you're like me, you're thinking to yourself, "Well, Louisiana, I know that you have a bad reputation in education but this seems like a very, very low bar. You're telling me that average students get nearly all of their already state-subsidized college tuition for the year paid for by the state?"

Yes.

At the lowest award point, students at LSU are still responsible for the remainder of the tuition ($209.16) and fees ($1197.45). Sure, there are other costs (books, housing, meal plan, etc.) but wow, that's a generous handout for being mediocre. Students with financial need can still qualify through their FAFSA application for tons of programs to cover those other costs -- work study, federal and state grants, hardship exemptions, loans, and of course, scholarships.

What's the consequence of this generous program? Well, I was curious so I read a whole doctoral dissertation on it (nerd alert).

My first reaction, as a former out-of-state student at a Louisiana public university: TOPS is a sham. The bar is so low and students (who may not even be fit for college) are getting their tuition paid for practically in full and given a nearly free ride. The state is rewarding mediocrity and filling the seats in classrooms with students who may be opportunistic and under motivated, and in my personal experience, very ungrateful and unaware of the generosity of the program.

My next reaction, as a bleeding heart liberal: TOPS is helping so many first-generation college students who could not have afforded college otherwise. Some students may be the first in their family to escape generational poverty as we know that a college degree greatly increases your lifetime earning potential.

My reaction, as a skeptic of the state's oil industry: Maybe TOPS is encouraging young men to stay in high school, graduate, and head to college instead of dropping out to make quick money off-shore in sometimes dangerous and often physically demanding jobs.

My reaction, as a Louisiana tax payer: Why the hell is the state giving away so much money to students with such low GPAs and ACT scores? In-state students already get a portion of their tuition subsidized (compare in-state tuition rates with out-of-state ones and you'll see), why are we further subsidizing?

My reaction, as a personal finance blogger: This program has been in place since 1989, predating the birth of our current college freshmen by nearly a decade which means these kids' parents have known about the requirements and awards for quite some time. I wonder how that affected their parents' college savings plans? I imagine knowing there would be a handout to pay for college caused many who would otherwise saved enough to put away less, or nothing at all, for their kids' education. 

The problem? TOPS will cost the state $300 million for the 2016-2017 year. The state is facing a $750 million budget deficit. Cutting TOPS, or at least a scaling back for fall, is a no-brainer.

Teaching at a public university in Louisiana, I have daily interactions with students who are anxious about how they'll pay for school without TOPS. I, of course, try to seem sympathetic. However, I want to scream, "Y'all really couldn't see this coming?!"

My students complain that for the first time, they'll have to think about taking out student loans. Internally, I say, "Boo-frickedy-hoo!" State taxpayers didn't front the money for my tuition bill my parents didn't pay for all of my college education, either. I took out student loans. guess what? I survived!

If a program like TOPS sounded like it was too good to be true, or at least unsustainable, it probably is. Just because certain programs and entitlements have existed in the past or do currently, you're foolish to expect them to continue in perpetuity, nonetheless be there when you think you "want," "need" or "deserve" them.

My advice to Louisiana parents with children? Save for college now, because you can't expect a handout forever. In other words, when it comes to financial aid: expect nothing and maybe you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Plus, this might be a reality check for these millennial students who won't be able to count on Social Security to the extent that previous generations have.

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich, Disease Called Debt and The Millennial Budget*
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