Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Report: Low-income, high-achieving students deserve TOPS; Senate rejects non-discrimination act; House raises standards for TOPS stipends; As rent rises, housing assistance plateaus

Report: Low-income, high-achieving students deserve TOPS

A new report from Tulane’s Cowen Institute takes a closer look at some of the proposed TOPS changes being discussed in the Capitol. Their data show how plans to raise eligibility requirements or require repayment of the awards – both of which have been proposed this session – would disproportionately affect low-income and students of color in New Orleans. The one policy change that could safeguard low-income students while bringing much-needed change to TOPS, the authors argue, is reverting TOPS to a need-based program. That way, not only would legislators chip away at the projected $183 million TOPS deficit, they would also guarantee that more higher education assistance goes to students who actually need it:

If legislators do decide to alter TOPS in order to balance the budget, we recommend the following: 1. Make TOPS need-based. With more than 40 percent of recipients coming from families making $100,000 or more, the program’s awards are disproportionately going to students and families who could otherwise contribute to the cost of attendance. If legislators must reduce the cost of TOPS, they should do so by capping the income of recipients so that students who can least afford college are still eligible to receive the awards and gain a post-secondary education. College is especially important for first-generation students to improve their economic circumstances. If only students from families with incomes $50,000 or below were eligible for the program, TOPS would have cost a maximum of $84 million in 2015-16 rather than its actual budget of $267 million. …. Ensuring that only students who could not otherwise afford to attend college are supported by TOPS is a cost-effective solution to ensuring the long-term viability of the program. TOPS should ensure the ability of students with the least resources to be able to access college.

Dr. Andre Perry of The Hechinger Report echoed the call for a needs-based component. By making changes to TOPS that don’t take low-income Louisianans into account, he writes, lawmakers would be leaving their job grossly unfinished:

“It’s time for fiscal responsibility in this state. No more smoke and no more mirrors,” recited Gov. John Bel Edwards, in a prepared speech that opened the special legislative session in February. Well, the offering of raising the ACT and GPA requirements is another sleight of hand that hides the legislature’s inaction of finding solutions that prioritize funding for students otherwise denied access to higher education, and the proposal masks the unwillingness to restructure TOPS into a fiscally sustainable scholarship program. … The inaction of the legislature to prioritize scholarships for high achieving, low-income students not only denies a post secondary education for those who need it most, it continues to kick the can of responsibility down the road.


Senate rejects non-discrimination act

A bill that would have created a Louisiana version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) suffered an overwhelming defeat on the Senate floor Tuesday. Sen. Troy Carter authored SB 436, which banned some private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees. Gov. Edwards signed a similar ordinance to protect LGBT state workers and contractors earlier this year, but Carter’s attempt to apply ENDA to private employers drew renewed opposition from the business community. Times-Picayune’s Julia O’Donoghue has the story:

Senate Bill 436 failed overwhelmingly by a three-to-one margin but no lawmaker got up to public explain why they opposed the proposal on the Senate floor. Only one Republican, Houma Sen. Norbert Chabert, voted for the legislation. A handful of Democrats voted against it. … In most parts of the state, public and private employers can fire or refuse to hire someone if the person is perceived to be gay or transgender. Carter was hoping to make that illegal through this legislation. An exception was built in for religious organizations and churches, who would still have been able to turn away LGBT workers. … Carter brought a similar bill to protect gay and lesbian people as a state House member 23 years ago. When that legislation made it to the House floor back in 1993, it failed on a 68-24 vote — by a similar three-to-one margin. “I am obviously disappointed that in 2016, we are still having to fight for basic rights,” said Carter, a Democrat from New Orleans.


House raises standards for TOPS stipends

After hearing dozens of proposals, House members finally passed a change to the TOPS tuition assistance program on Tuesday aimed at addressing its ballooning cost. SB 329 by Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge would raise the TOPS GPA requirements, but only for the top two tiers of the award. The bill would not threaten any TOPS recipients’ tuition assistance, only the extra stipend that comes with TOPS Honors and Opportunity awards. The targeted approach helped the measure gain enough votes in the House to send it favorably back to the Senate for final approval. According to Gannett’s Greg Hilburn, the policy wouldn’t take effect until 2021 and would leave the current ACT requirements for TOPS unchanged:

The GPA requirement for performance awards would increase from 3.0 to 3.25, while the GPA requirement for honors awards would increase from 3.0 to 3.5. Base awards for all TOPS scholarships are the same, but TOPS performance awards include an additional $400 annual stipend, while honors awards include an $800 annual stipend. “This is a good bill,” said state Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, chairman of the House Education Committee. “It raises the standards for stipends without eliminating anyone from the scholarship.” The grade point average requirement for TOPS opportunity scholarships would remain at 2.5 percent.


As rent rises, housing assistance plateaus

With rents rising and wages stagnating, this decade has seen record highs of homelessness among U.S. families with children. Unfortunately, according to a new report from The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, federal housing assistance hasn’t kept up with the rising need, leaving more families struggling to keep a roof over their heads. The authors note that, while more than 3 million poor families paid more than half of their income toward rent in 2013, federal assistance for housing and rent has sunk to a decade low:

When housing costs half or more of monthly income, families often must make painful choices between paying the rent and buying basic necessities like adequate food or medication.  This precarious financial situation also puts them at an increased risk of eviction or homelessness.  Families with children who are behind on rent are more likely to be evicted than other types of households. During the 2013-2014 school year, 1.4 million school-age children were in families that lacked a home of their own — for instance, they were in a homeless shelter or doubled up with other families. … The federal government spent $2.9 billion less for housing assistance in 2015 than in 2004, after adjusting for inflation. Had federal spending remained at 2004 levels, that $2.9 billion could have funded an estimated 350,000 additional vouchers — potentially preventing the decline in families with children receiving rental assistance. The housing problems facing low-income renters with children are unlikely to improve without more public investment in rental assistance.  Growing demand for rental housing is driving rent increases in many parts of the country, and the increase in households that cannot afford more than modestly priced rentals far exceeds the increase in the supply of such units. For the 20 percent of renters with annual incomes below $15,000, rents must be under $400/month to be affordable.  Yet between 2003 and 2013, the number of such low-cost units rose by just 10 percent, while the number of such households rose by 40 percent.  


Number of the Day:

20 percent – Portion of all TOPS recipients in 2014 who came from families making more than $150,000 annually. (Source: The Cowen Institute and LOFSA)