TOPS changes still face uphill battle

Phyllis Taylor, the influential defender of Louisiana’s TOPS program, concedes that some changes could be — and have been — made to the state’s generous tuition assistance offering.

It could use a needs-based component. Courses could be more rigorous. Maybe it shouldn’t be tied to tuition, she says.

But Taylor disagreed with efforts during the 2014 legislative session to raise the ACT score or grade-point average necessary for students to qualify for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, named for her late husband. And her opposition helped stave off any significant changes this session, despite a push from key Republican legislative leaders.

“The day will come when we’ll be able to increase the gpa and the ACT score, but it’s just not today,” Taylor said in a recent meeting with The Advocate editorial board.

Created nearly two decades ago, the program’s price tag has swelled from $53 million in the late 1990s to more than $200 million today. It’s funded through a combination of state general fund dollars and tobacco lawsuit settlement money.

More than 212,000 students have been awarded TOPS grants since 1999.

Louisiana high schoolers who graduate with a 2.5 gpa, take the required high school curriculum and score at least a 20 on the standardized ACT test can qualify for the scholarship, which covers tuition but doesn’t include fees and other costs of going to college. Originally named the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students, it was renamed in 2008 for the late Patrick Taylor, who helped develop the plan behind TOPS.

The Legislature frequently has debated changing TOPS to cut back its costs to the state, but this session saw such talk receive more traction. Even lawmakers who opposed the effort admitted the need to review the program —only next year.

Thanks to one of the only TOPS-related pieces of legislation to make it through this session, a diverse group of people, including legislators, Taylor, state education leaders and others will have to meet and study the program to see whether they can come up with recommendations for next year.

Taylor said she’s looking forward to those meetings, after seeing a virtual target placed on TOPS in recent years.

“I would love to see this settled,” she said. “I fight for this cause — many people think I fight it because my husband’s name is on it, but they can name it anything they choose. I will still fight for the cause. I have been totally committed to this program. I think it is the best thing for our state.”

House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican who has pushed for changes to TOPS, said he also is looking forward to movement on the issue.

“Between now and next session a number of us will get together and see what she would like to accomplish,” he said. “I think we’re at a point of trying to work together to come up with a solution.”

He said he feels like next session will be the session that something happens with TOPS. He’s just not sure what.

Carter said he was disappointed with the outcome this year. He and other powerful Republicans in both chambers had pushed for changes before they were ultimately dropped. Many said they felt that Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is close to Taylor and other TOPS supporters, would never sign off on the proposals.

“It never got off the ground,” Carter said. “We’re back to square one.”

Carter said he hopes to look at what others are doing with similar programs in other states, though he wouldn’t speculate what those changes could look like.

“There are a lot of different variations across the country,” he said. “There are a lot of proposals that could be out there.”

And Taylor said she isn’t opposed to altering TOPS. “Are there some things that need to be changed? Yes,” she said.

She said the goal of the program was to ensure that “children of need” were able to go to college and become a part of a productive workforce for the state. A needs-based component, such as an income limit, would help steer the money in that direction.

“We can give grants, scholarships, awards, whatever you chose to title them to those in the upper income bracket, but the chances are they’re going to college anyway,” she said.

Already, she said, modest changes have been made to TOPS that she thinks have improved the program. TOPS originally required 17.5 specific units of coursework in high school. Now it’s 19.

“We have increased the rigor, feeling that was more important than increasing the gpa or ACT,” Taylor said.

She said she feels that altering the ACT and gpa requirements would negatively impact minorities and poorer students.

“It has taken us this long to get those students of need to finally get to the point where they can get a 20 on the ACT and a 2.5 on the gpa,” Taylor said. “If you go back and look at the students in this category, they’re having a very hard time getting from the 19 to the 20.”

The state’s average ACT score is 19.7.

Taylor and other TOPS backers often note that the mission is beyond getting students money for college. The scholarships, she said, are more of an incentive to get students to take the TOPS-required curriculum.

James Caillier, the executive director of the Taylor Foundation who met with The Advocate along with Taylor, also stressed that point, and even called to repeat it after the meeting at the newspaper’s Baton Rouge office.

“The most significant thing is courses taken,” he said.

Carter, the legislator, said he does see value in the popular program.

“We’re helping a lot of kids, and we’re doing good work right now,” he said. “The biggest problem is the dollar amount.”

Taylor, Caillier and other TOPS supporters have been on a campaign to build public sentiment, which already has been overwhelmingly positive — despite the yearly budget push back in the State Capitol.

Last fall, the foundation launched an “I’m a TOPS Grad” Facebook page to tout and cull success stories and post photos of recipients.

“This is a program that is disbursed throughout the state and not at the benefit for one university,” Taylor said.

Tuition has gone up 10 percent on most campuses for the past six years, while the Legislature slashed general funding for higher ed.

“When you increase tuition, you decrease enrollment,” Caillier said. “If TOPS was not here the decrease would be even more.”

Overall, Taylor and Caillier said they support untying TOPS from tuition by letting the universities have tuition-setting power. They better understand the market environment in which they operate, Caillier said. Doing so would pave the way for the governor to set a TOPS payout that isn’t tied directly to tuition, and tuition increases would not have a direct link to TOPS payments.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .