Special report: Once geared toward poor, black students, now major shift in TOPS beneficiaries

Naima Bastian remembers the day, nearly 30 years ago, when the Texas-born oilman strode into her middle school in New Orleans East and made a startling promise to a classroom full of eighth-graders.

If they could hold a B average through high school, the man said, he’d pay for their college education.

Patrick Taylor’s spontaneous and generous pledge would forever change the landscape of higher education in Louisiana — and spawn copycat programs in other states.

But the taxpayer-financed scholarship program that bears the since-deceased Taylor’s name today is hardly recognizable as the one he created in 1988.

Taylor, who grew up poor and received a scholarship to a prep school and attended LSU in part because it was cheap, told the class at Livingston Middle School that he wanted to help children who, like him, might have had trouble affording college.

“It was supposed to be for inner-city kids,” said Bastian, 42, who went on to become an unofficial poster child for Taylor’s program. “It was supposed to be for children whose parents weren’t able to save the money for them to go to college.”

Over a generation, Taylor’s vision has been transformed from a small-scale, privately funded program to encourage poor children to achieve in school into a massive government subsidy that largely benefits middle-class and affluent families.

The annual cost to taxpayers has quintupled since 1998, the year the state first did away with income caps. Yearly spending on the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students has roughly doubled during Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure, something Jindal cites as an achievement.

Legislators have been reluctant to rein it in, partly because it’s hard to curtail a program that has so many beneficiaries. When lawmakers finally took a modest step toward limiting TOPS’ growth last year, Jindal vetoed it.

When the state first took over Taylor’s program and offered it statewide, in 1989, it had an income cap of $25,000, about $47,850 in today’s dollars. But since 1998, everyone who qualifies academically has been eligible, even the children of millionaires.

Now, more than two-thirds of the students who receive TOPS come from families with incomes that exceed the old cap, adjusted for inflation. One in five comes from a family that makes more than $150,000.

The academic requirements also are a bit different from those of the original program. The minimum 3.0 GPA Taylor demanded was lowered to a 2.5 when the state took over. At the same time, a requirement that recipients score at least a 20 on the ACT was added — three points higher than the average of 17 posted by black students.

That’s one reason black students are massively under-represented among TOPS recipients today. Among high school graduates, state data analyzed by The Advocate shows that a white student is almost three times more likely than a black student to receive a TOPS scholarship. Asked by The Advocate whether such disparities troubled him, Jindal replied: “I think it’s a great thing that TOPS is a merit-based program, and I think that’s the way it should continue to be designed.”

He added: “As a state, we need to ensure that every child has a chance to have a great education,” adding that the reforms his administration championed helped narrow the achievement gap between black students and white students.

There’s still a long way to go, however. Louisiana has the lowest educational attainment among black people of any state in the nation, by a comfortable margin.

When Taylor started his scholarship program in 1988, it wasn’t explicitly aimed at black kids, but it was clear they would be the prime beneficiaries. And it was unambiguously for people who couldn’t afford college.

“Our whole class wasn’t black,” recalls Bastian, who went on to study at Southern University at New Orleans and is now an in-house social worker at a senior living complex in Marrero. “We had some white kids, Hispanic kids also — but they were poor. We were at Livingston; Livingston was in a poor area.”

A complete makeover

The state’s reimagining of TOPS — which started in 1989 and reached full flower in 1997 — probably has turned out to be the most significant policy change in Louisiana higher education in the past few decades.

Instead of a humble private charity, TOPS is now one of the primary conduits through which Louisiana taxpayers finance higher education. That’s because massive cuts in direct state aid to universities since 2008 came with steep tuition hikes, which in turn drove up the cost of TOPS and raised the program’s profile.

The shift has moved Louisiana away from a model of funding campuses directly and toward a more Darwinian one, in which the state funds individual students it deems worthy of assistance, regardless of their need. For the others, the cost of attending college is growing apace.

In 2007, Louisiana taxpayers spent 14 cents on TOPS scholarships for every $1 they sent as direct aid to universities. This year, the scholarships get 67 cents for every $1 that goes to the campuses.

And the schools don’t receive an equal share of that money. Far from it. Certain campuses — LSU, of course, but also the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Louisiana Tech — have relatively high proportions of students on TOPS. Although the scholarship money isn’t a direct subsidy, it helps certain universities stay vital.

On other campuses, the absence of TOPS money is palpable.

At SUNO, where Bastian went to school decades ago, there has not been a single freshman on campus receiving a TOPS scholarship in several recent years.

Two years ago, there were 12 — a banner year, of sorts.

That same fall, LSU had 4,307 freshmen on TOPS.

LSU got $91.5 million in TOPS money last school year — an average of $2,940 per full-time student. Compare that with SUNO, which got a total of $66,668 — an average of $25 per student. That’s more than a hundredfold difference.

Rising tuition

Although sticker prices at Louisiana’s public universities are still below the national average of $9,410, they’re quickly approaching it.

Average tuition has grown by 52 percent over the past five years here — more than in any other state, by far. In fact, no other state has seen its tuition go up by more than 31 percent over that span, according to College Board data. The average hike has been 13 percent.

Such skyrocketing prices might normally trigger considerable political blowback. But much of the middle-class constituency TOPS serves was protected, making the increases more palatable.

Even so, the program doesn’t shield everyone — despite its modest requirements, only about 1 in 3 students at Louisiana’s 14 four-year universities is on TOPS.

At two-year schools and at the state’s historically black universities, only about 1 in every 17 students is covered by TOPS. (TOPS Tech — aimed at helping students pay for two-year schools — has a lower ACT requirement than the other TOPS awards, but the program is hardly used, for reasons that state officials have not fully grasped. Less than 2,000 students each year make use of those scholarships; Tech awards make up less than 2 percent of all TOPS spending.)

For students who aren’t on TOPS, the tuition increases are very real, and Louisiana offers little in the way of aid to help low-income students make up the difference.

On average, American states put more than 60 percent of their student aid into need-based programs; among southern states, the average is almost 40 percent. Louisiana, by comparison, puts just 9 percent of its aid into programs based on financial need.

Louisiana’s main need-based program, called Go Grants, debuted in 2007, but its funding has remained flat since 2008. It now gets less than one-tenth as much state money as TOPS.

Thanks to sharply rising tuition, the stalled funding for Go Grants has had the effect of a cut. The number of students receiving Go Grants has fallen by almost a third in the past few years. Because the grants need to be larger, on average, to cover growing needs, the money now runs out faster.

A popular model

Large merit-based programs, many of them drawing their inspiration from TOPS, have become increasingly popular, especially in the South.

But Louisiana’s is distinctive partly in that its merit requirements are so low.

Most other state programs require a GPA of at least 3.0; Mississippi’s requires a 3.5. And some, like Georgia’s massive HOPE program, have no minimum ACT score, which reduces racial disparities in the outcomes.

Ironically, TOPS’ unusually modest benchmarks owe to its origins as a program targeting the poor. They’ve stayed in place as the program morphed into an open one, and they are a key aspect of TOPS’ popularity.

For middle-class Louisianians, the benchmarks tend to be easily attainable.

And for many parents — especially, perhaps, those who have had to pay for years of private-school tuition bills because they live in parishes with weak public schools — it seems only fair that the state is finally paying for a service that’s worth consuming.

“What’s wrong with Louisiana having a program that helps middle-class kids too?” asked state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, expressing a widely held view.

Though Donahue, who leads the Senate Finance Committee, authored a bill that would rein in TOPS’ costs last year, he remains an unabashed fan of the program’s open nature.

“I think the people in my area that work as hard as they do deserve to have some programs in Louisiana that work for them, you know?” Donahue said. “Everything can’t be geared towards the poorest people in the state. What about middle-income people who work so hard trying to give their kids everything they can? Why shouldn’t they have some programs?”

But for TOPS critics, the modest benchmarks are a major shortcoming for a program that lacks income caps. They grouse that finishing high school with a combination of B’s and C’s and a 20 on the ACT doesn’t necessarily translate into scholarship material — especially if the student in question has had other advantages.

The low bar also may explain why so many TOPS recipients lose their awards. Roughly 40 percent of those who start on a TOPS scholarship aren’t able to keep it, chiefly because of low grades or failure to earn enough credits.

“In a world of limited resources, the easiest place to cut would be by no longer providing scholarships to middle-of-the-road students who can afford to pay for it,” said Jan Moller, director of the left-leaning Louisiana Budget Project, which advocates tightening TOPS and putting more money into Go Grants. “C-plus students should definitely go to college. I just don’t know if they should go on my dime.”

Best and brightest?

Among the fundamental goals of TOPS: to encourage more Louisiana highschoolers to take a challenging curriculum and to keep the so-called “best and brightest” of them in state for college.

There’s strong evidence the program is succeeding at the first.

Louisiana high schools have tried to make as many students eligible for TOPS as possible, naturally. State data shows that 71 percent of high school students now take the required curriculum, compared with 58 percent a decade ago. James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, said the foundation’s research shows that only about 10 percent of high school students took the “TOPS core” when the program was new.

But it’s much more difficult to judge whether TOPS is achieving its other major aim: keeping Louisiana’s strongest students here.

It’s easy enough to see that most of the kids who qualify for TOPS take it. A recent Board of Regents report found that roughly 9 of every 10 TOPS qualifiers over the past decade accepted the award and enrolled in a Louisiana college.

But what about the cream of the crop?

TOPS offers awards in three tiers, with slightly more generous grants at the upper levels. The highest award, TOPS Honors, requires a 3.0 GPA and a 27 on the ACT.

Although the number of students qualifying for that level over time has been going up, the percentage of honors awardees who decide to enroll at a Louisiana college has stayed steady at about 83 percent.

Those who qualify for the lower levels of TOPS are substantially more likely to take it, averaging 92 percent.

In other words, the highest-performing TOPS recipients are twice as likely to decline the award as the less-outstanding ones — probably because the top students are getting tempting out-of-state scholarship offers.

But the fundamental problem with trying to answer the question of whether TOPS has kept more of Louisiana’s best and brightest here is that there is no baseline to form a basis of comparison.

Although TOPS’ many backers often crow about its success, the truth is that state officials created a program that has given out more than $2 billion in taxpayer money without making any real effort to gather statistics on whether it was moving the needle.

“Where’s the data that shows this has worked?” asked Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, who is deeply skeptical of the claims. “The governor (Jindal) keeps saying it’s keeping the best and brightest in the state. I want to see the research. … If you show me the data, I’ll be quiet.”

Former state Rep. Charles McDonald, R-Bastrop, who authored the bill that created the current TOPS program, agrees it might have been prudent to study TOPS’ effects more closely — though he’s confident it has kept more top kids here.

“A lot of times you have goals, but you never go back and get a true measurement,” he said. “I think we need to gather that data.”

Former Gov. Mike Foster, who signed McDonald’s bill lifting the income cap from TOPS, said he doesn’t need any statistics.

“Some things are just self-evident,” he said. “It’s been a big success. More people walk up to me and thank me for that program than for anything else I ever did.”

Reining in the cost

Many critics, including Moller, of the Louisiana Budget Project, say TOPS is simply ill-designed: It’s a merit program that rewards mediocrity, while providing little additional incentive for top performers. And it does nothing for the needy.

“We got it wrong on both ends,” Moller said.

Moller and other liberal critics say they’d rather see a program that raises the merit bar much higher and pumps the resulting savings into more need-based aid. On Friday, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ higher education transition team released its report, which makes similar recommendations.

But proposals to raise the standards have run into a buzzsaw of opposition, some of it coming from the Taylor Foundation, which continues to wield great sway over its namesake program. Caillier, the foundation’s director, and Taylor’s widow, Phyllis, serve as the public faces of the program and are its most influential lobbyists.

Caillier said the foundation would strongly support boosting need-based aid, to help fulfill Taylor’s original mission of helping the poor. But he believes the Legislature is skeptical of the purely need-based Go Grants, and he fears that any attempt at a swap would simply tighten TOPS but leave need-based aid alone.

“Some legislators want to increase the bar to 24,” Caillier said. “If you did that, you’d eliminate 80 percent of the minority students.

“We will fight any attempt to raise the ACT score above 20 because if you do that, then you start impacting these kids. And that was the original intent.”

Just about everyone agrees that the way TOPS is structured is unsustainable, but there’s little consensus on its design. And so the compromise position has become to control its growth while changing the rules as little as possible.

The Legislature tried to do that in 2015, passing Sen. Donahue’s bill to “decouple” TOPS from tuition. Had the bill become law, the size of a TOPS scholarship would not have automatically risen in tandem with tuition — in other words, the Legislature could raise tuition at some point in the future and put that cost on students, rather than on the state.

Although the bill passed easily — and had the crucial support of the Taylor Foundation — Jindal vetoed it anyway, saying that not guaranteeing the state would cover all eligible students’ tuition would be breaking an implicit promise.

Donahue’s bill looks like a cinch to pass again this year. Edwards, who supported it last year and who faces a daunting budget crunch, has said he’ll sign it.

The question is whether a bigger reimagining of Louisiana’s signature aid program is in the cards. But it seems unlikely.

It makes no sense to Kimbrough, the Dillard president. Though the private university he runs has been the indirect beneficiary of about $8 million in TOPS scholarships over the years, Kimbrough said the program isn’t helping the people it was set up to help — or those who really need a hand.

Instead, said Kimbrough, who is married and has two children at high-performing schools, it’s helping families like his.

“So I already have privilege, and my kids are gonna be able to do whatever they want to,” he said. “And now the state of Louisiana is going to say, ‘We’re gonna give you some money on top of that.’ That’s crazy to me. I don’t need that money! Give that money to someone who really needs it.

“What we’re doing is not in the spirit of what Patrick Taylor created. It’s nowhere near the spirit of what he created.”

Editor's note: This story was updated Feb. 2 to correct the relationship between TOPS spending and direct aid to four-year universities, and to correct the percentage of state scholarship aid that goes to need-based assistance.

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Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.

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