A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE ANALYSIS

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” is an axiom that references the dirty trick pulled on the city of Troy by the Greeks, who were their war-time adversary in ancient times. Real quick, the Greeks carved a giant wooden horse as a gift to the people of Troy, who brought it inside their city gates. Unbeknownst to the people of Troy, inside the horse were members of the Greek army, who under the cover of night disembarked from the giant wooden equine, attacked Troy and won the war!

So, yes, we should be wary of Greeks—and privateers—bearing gifts.

And that pretty much sums up what we think about the new “privateer pledge”—a plan by UNO officials to ostensibly bolster their enrollment numbers by offering tuition forgiveness to all first-time freshmen who are Orleans Parish residents whose combined family income is $60,000 or less. As we understand it, it will go something like this: after all gift aid is applied—that’s financial aid that does not have to be paid back such as scholarships, PELL, SEOG and GO grants are applied—the University will forgive any remaining cost associated with tuition and fees. And this means that the student and/or their parents will not have to come out of pocket or take out any federal students loans—which ultimately must be paid back.

And at first, even here at The New Orleans Tribune, we thought, “Hmmm…that sounds pretty good.”

Look, we know—some of us better than others—that one of the worst facets of higher education in America is the astronomical debt many young people incur trying to earn their degrees. And so a plan that says to them, “Hey, look, if after all the free money you can muster up to pay your tuition is applied, you still have unmet tuition costs, don’t worry about it. We got you.”

Really, who can argue with that?

We can!

So you mean to tell us that while Southern University at New Orleans struggles with financial woes that threaten it accreditation, the University of New Orleans has it so good that it is willing to just write off the remaining tuition bills of incoming freshmen from the city? University of New Orleans President John Nicklow had this to say about the pledge. “The Privateer Pledge is our promise to eligible Orleans Parish students that we will marshal all of the federal, state and institutional aid necessary to fill any financial gap for tuition and fees.”

Ain’t that a trip? Really, if this does not highlight the racial disparities and challenges HBCUs, and especially publicly funded ones, face we don’t know what does. UNO can unilaterally announce that it will rally funds from federal, state and institutional sources to cover unmet tuition for ostensibly hundreds of freshmen, while SUNO has been forced to scrap its entire athletic department—pulling student scholarships and eradicating coaching jobs because of a $2 million shortfall.

And even more bothersome to us is that this plan has the potential to lure students who might have otherwise considered SUNO to attend UNO, at a time when increasing its student population is critical to SUNO’s survival. We are certain that this plan has those who want nothing more than to see SUNO shuttered and “merged” with UNO drooling like salivating dogs. 

While the HBCU recently offered a couple dozen scholarships to local community college grads, we suspect that tuition forgiveness for every incoming freshmen from New Orleans is not plausible for SUNO. It is an unfair tool at a time that could ultimately lead to more Black students choosing UNO over SUNO.

We’ll Say It: The Privateer Pledge is a Trojan Horse

If you know anything about The New Orleans Tribune by now, you know we’re not afraid to say what we believe. So we will say it. This whole thing is a bunch of bull, a trick, a hoax, a subterfuge of ancient Grecian proportions designed to get poor Black freshmen to choose UNO while SUNO fights for survival. 

For poor Black students in New Orleans—for whom many, higher education is a critical part of the path to financial stability—this privateer pledge is little more than smoke and mirrors. 

As much as we champion HBCUs, we would not dare discourage Black youth from attending UNO or any other predominantly white institution. What we are saying is this—don’t let this “privateer pledge” sway you.

Look, we are not against UNO or any historically, predominately White institution of higher learning. Yes, we love HBCUs; but we also believe that every institution of higher learning needs diversity. In short, we belong everywhere. We know plenty of folk that earned their degrees at UNO—some of our best friends—and we are proud of them. But we are no more proud of them than we are of those who earned their degrees from SUNO, Southern and Grambling or private HBCUs like Dillard and Xavier—those schools where we not only belong, but the ones that accepted us, nurtured us, and educated us when none of the others would. They are still the ones that, to this day, that understand how institutional racism continues to impact the lives of Black Americans in areas like public education. So when many of our young people—who have been failed by public K-12 education—struggle to get admitted to a UNO or an LSU, our beloved institutions, knowing that ACT scores do not define potential and embracing their pivotal and powerful role as agents of change in our communities, say “yes”.

Let us put a pin here. We are so “over” hearing this talk about UNO and its diversity. Yes, diverse people do attend UNO. That does not make UNO diverse—at least not as diverse as it ought to be. A publicly funded school that brags about a student body that is roughly 16 percent Black would be great in a city that was roughly 16 percent Black, but in one that is roughly 60 percent Black, we call foul. And that is why SUNO matters and remains relevant.

Still, our contention that this privateer pledge is much ado about nothing, especially for Black students who come from limited means, is not so much a Black and White thing as it is a dollars and cents thing. 

First, the privateer pledge refers to tuition and tuition-related fees only. In short, it does not include books, transportation costs, housing or meals plans for students who elect to stay on campus—just the basic tuition and fees. And that makes sense for a campus like UNO or even SUNO, where the vast majority of its students are commuters. 

But let’s break this thing down. The in-state tuition cost at UNO is roughly $9,300 a year. The in-state tuition costs at SUNO is roughly $7,200 annually. This according to the schools’ respective websites.

Now let’s talk about gift aid and financial need. Once again, given what we know about the demographics of our great city as it relates to income and earnings disparities, we are confident in saying that this privateer pledge is designed to help mostly White  students from middle class families go to college with out going into debt. 

According to the Tricentennial edition of the Data Center’s Prosperity Index, in 2016, Blacks in New Orleans had a median household income of only $25,324, while Hispanics were at $35,683 and White households living in New Orleans had a median income of $67,884. 

In other words, poor Black college students from New Orleans are more likely to qualify for the maximum amounts of need-based gift aid that will cover most, if not all of their tuition and fees, essentially making the privateer pledge a moot point for them. 

The average poor Black kid from New Orleans entering college as a freshmen at any institution would likely do so with a Pell grant worth about $6,200, a $600 SEOG grant and, let’s say, a $1,500 GO grant from the state of Louisiana, for a total of about $8,300 in grant gift aid alone. That does not include any academic or athletic scholarships or even TOPS, the state tuition program that has been so bastardized that it mostly serves White students from affluent families from across a state where almost 70 percent of public school students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

$8,300 is $8,300

Still, that is $8,300 in gift aid; and it is $8,300 that no matter where you take it. 

It’s $8,300 at UNO. It’s $8,300 at SUNO. Actually it would go further at SUNO, covering a student’s entire tuition and even leaving about $1,000 unused  (roughly $500 or so a semester)—money that the student could use to buy books or a laptop or a few meals to fuel their energy during those deep study sessions. 

In other words, there will be very little unmet tuition and fees costs for many poor Black students who come from limited means whether they choose to enroll at SUNO or UNO. And if a local kid also earns a scholarship of some type or meets the state’s TOPs requirements, then the privateer pledge really means nothing to them. 

And that is the subterfuge we hope young Black students who would rely largely on gift forms of financial aid don’t fall for. 

To be sure, the University of New Orleans is mostly talking about pulling together resources for students from middle class families, whose household incomes make them ineligible for significant Pell, SEOG and Go Grants awards. 

And that’s great. But tell the truth and shame Satan—this pledge will do little help poor, mostly Black, students. 

So before anyone gets tricked into abandoning SUNO for UNO for what—maybe $500 bucks in tuition forgiveness a semester—let’s remember that we still need SUNO and SUNO needs us. 

By the way, because of that wooden horse, Troy was (“was” being the operative word) a city in the far west region of Asia minor, an area now located in modern Turkey. Long forgotten and abandoned, it is not there any longer—the very idiomatic definition of “ancient history”. 

Let’s do all we can to make certain SUNO does not meet a similar fate.

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