Our Views: Reform bills for TOPS

It’s almost no longer news when a bill fails to rein in the runaway costs of the state’s popular TOPS program for college tuition.

After all, politicians benefit greatly from the tuition vouchers that go to students of modest intellectual attainments, mostly from middle- and upper-middle-class families who vote with great regularity. As a political deal, it can’t be beat — so politicians are loath to mess with it.

Yet when the House Education Committee, a boneyard of political courage, killed a number of TOPS bills recently, the message should be loud and clear: One of these days, one or more of the bills will pass.

Why? Because the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is costing a lot. Its free tuition vouchers for some 45,000 recipients costs the treasury about $220 million this year. Some estimates put the program at $300 million within the next few years.

TOPS’ defenders cite its benefits, and indeed it has some. For one thing, it provides an incentive for students to look toward college and take the TOPS-required courses in high school that will provide a more solid education. That will help those students in life, even if distressingly large numbers of TOPS recipients lose their benefits because they don’t make the grades in college .

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office reported nearly half of the college students awarded TOPS scholarships between 2002 and 2008 lost their award, costing the state about $165 million.

The program, though, does nothing for universities except substitute a state check for the ones that families would otherwise write. Ironically, legislators are quick to condemn programs for the poor that don’t require “skin in the game” in the form of work requirements; higher-income families would surely put some pressure on children to maintain grades if the family was paying the freight, but today, a large part of college costs are a TOPS freebie.

That freebie is increasingly unaffordable.

If TOPS reform is inevitable, one day, it is not yet clear what form that will take.

Maybe it would be a drastic increase in academic requirements for the award, although that further skews the demographics of the recipients to the affluent families who, obviously, can afford Louisiana’s relatively low college costs.

Or, probably, some other more comprehensive change in TOPS structure will occur, once a future governor looks at the issue with clear eyes and leads the way to a reasonable set of changes that even feckless legislators will embrace.