Let’s stop calling Louisiana’s TOPS program a ‘burden’

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.

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4 Responses to Let’s stop calling Louisiana’s TOPS program a ‘burden’

  1. Stephen Winham says:

    Excellent points reinforcing those made in Dr. James Wharton’s (LSU Chancellor Emeritus and nationally-recognized expert on higher education) recent letter in The ADVOCATE:

    http://theadvocate.com/football/neworleansprepfootball/15411937-123/cut-tuition-to-reduce-tops-cost

    It really is amazing that our legislators and the general public miss the very simple point that increasing tuition increases the cost of TOPS and that among the solutions to controlling its costs, lowering tuition should be at the top of the list.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, indeed. Looks like TOPS will be sliced and diced and seasoned to political taste to where it will look like any other half-baked scholarship, never reaching those who need the hand up.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. John says:

    Mr. Mann,

    One suggested change in TOPS, raising the ACT score to 26, is not just disastrous for marginal students. It is disastrous for all but the very highest scoring students. A score on the ACT of 26 does not mean that you need to do better than 72 percent of the students taking the test (26/36 equals 72). I have heard people discuss the change in this manner. Statistical scores are not linear. A 26 on the ACT means you scored in the 88th percentile. Only the best testing students in our state will achieve this. It is a totally unreasonable standard. If such a standard is imposed, the program will lose political support because it will help only students at or above the 88th percentile when ranked nationally. Because the average ACT score in our state is below the national average, even fewer of our students will qualify. Who is going to support a program that helps fewer than 10 percent of college students? (Currently, the score of 22 needed on the ACT is near the 62 percentile, meaning 38 percent of our students qualify.). What sounds like a relatively small change (4 points) is actually Extreme!

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    • rtmannjr says:

      Excellent points. It is maddening and outrageous that TOPS has become a scapegoat for our leaders’ unwillingness to adequately fund higher education.

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