The number of Louisiana high school graduates in the class of 2021 who qualified for the state’s free college tuition program hit a five-year low, according to state figures shared Wednesday. The COVID-19 pandemic, two straight years of major hurricanes and declining college enrollment are contributing factors, an education official said.
A preliminary enrollment survey from the state Board of Regents, which oversees higher education, found a 26% decrease in enrollment at Louisiana colleges and universities for the fall 2021 semester. Accompanying that drop was a 3.1% reduction in the number of students who qualified for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS.
Out of 37,519 Louisiana high school graduates in the class of 2021 who were processed for eligibility, there were 24,653 or 65.7% who qualified for TOPS, said Dr. Sujuan Boutte, executive director of the Louisiana Office for Student Financial Assistance. The TOPS qualifier count is the lowest since 2016 when 24,634 high school graduates earned the scholarship.
“It’s not a real big secret that K-12 in ’19, ’20 and 2021 were not the best years for students,” Boutte told the Board of Regents at its meeting Wednesday.
Boutte made clear that the lower numbers were not an indicator of poor academic performance from Louisiana high school grads. She repeatedly referenced hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020 and Ida last year as reasons why fewer students enrolled in college, so fewer qualified and accepted TOPS awards. Some students might have put off starting college because their home was damaged, while others opted out over concerns about COVID-19 or on-campus pandemic protocol, she said.
The state allows qualifying students to wait a year before they accept a TOPS scholarship. Some might decide to take a “gap year” before enrolling at a university, Boutte said. In light of successive hurricanes, the Board of Regents also created an exception so TOPS recipients already in college don’t have to stay continuously enrolled in school to receive the scholarship. To qualify, students have to live in one of the parishes declared a federal disaster area over the past two hurricane seasons, or they must attend a school in one of the affected parishes.
There was also a 7.69% decrease in TOPS award acceptance with 15,094 students choosing to use the scholarship in the current academic year, according to data from Boutte’s office. Both numbers are the lowest marks over the past six years.
With fewer students qualifying for and using the program, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration has proposed a 2022-2023 TOPS budget that does not change the amount requested from last year: $330.9 million. Projections that Boutte shared with Regents show modest increases in the number of TOPS qualifiers starting in academic year 2023, and the estimated TOPS budget also goes up about between $7 million and $8 million each year through 2026.
In related news, the Board of Regents gave final approval Wednesday to a new state law that adds African-American history to the list of core history options high school students can choose from to qualify for TOPS.
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