By Robert Mann
To hear some of our state’s leaders, you’d think Louisiana’s college tuition assistance program, TOPS, is a ravenous beast that is devouring the budget. “I’ve watched [TOPS] grow over my nine years here,” state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, said recently. “When programs are really successful like this one is, they can’t continue to grow forever.” Last year, when running for governor, then-Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (now Gov. John Bel Edwards’ commissioner of administration) called TOPS “a huge financial burden on the state.”
Once a modest plan to subsidize relatively low tuition costs – and staunch the state’s brain drain – TOPS is now reviled as a wasteful behemoth. But here’s the truth: TOPS has grown not because it’s profligate or poorly conceived. It’s increased for one reason. Lawmakers slashed higher education funding for eight years, forcing universities to hike tuition. That meant greater TOPS spending.
In fiscal 2009-10, the $131 million program consumed 1.45 percent of the state’s $9 billion general fund budget. This year, if fully funded at $293 million, TOPS would represent a “whopping” 3.47 percent of the budget. That’s an increase, for sure, but a fully funded TOPS program would remain a small portion of state spending.
And it’s benefiting many young people, keeping good students in Louisiana and helping those of modest means afford college. In 2006, 44,000 students were attending Louisiana universities and having their tuition funded by TOPS. Today, 50,000 students are eligible for the program, but now aren’t sure what, if any, funding they’ll receive next school year.
Even if they do get TOPS, it’s almost assured the Legislature will decouple it from annual tuition increases, meaning that as schools continue raising tuition, TOPS will cover a shrinking portion of the costs. If lawmakers don’t fully fund TOPS for the next school year, current law requires the funds go only to those with higher ACT scores. That’s great for the best students but potentially disastrous for those on the academic margins – young people who could do well in college but whose families might not have enough to cover skyrocketing tuition and fees at schools like LSU or UNO.
Just the threat of cutting TOPS has damaged our universities’ recruiting efforts, particularly at LSU, which has the most TOPS students. It wasn’t that long ago that urging your children to remain in Louisiana for college was a no-brainer. Now, with TOPS continually threatened, schools like LSU are losing students to other states. Edwards has already forced LSU to eat a $10 million TOPS cut in the current fiscal year. Next year, it could be much worse.
Continue on NOLA.com at this link.