TOPS scholarships raise concerns as college tuition rises
Incoming LSU freshman Isaiah Alexander said he briefly considered going to college out of state, but ultimately decided to enroll in a Louisiana university to pursue a degree in business management — largely because of the TOPS scholarship.
“I would’ve gone to school either way, but TOPS was a big help to me,” Alexander, of Lake Charles, said during freshman orientation at the Baton Rouge campus.
Keeping promising students like the 18-year-old Alexander in Louisiana was one of the key goals for the program now called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. TOPS pays tuition and some fees for high school students who meet certain academic benchmarks and attend in-state schools.
Fourteen years after its inception, TOPS retains its status as what backers call “one of the most precious gifts” — and one of the most popular laws — that state legislators ever gave Louisiana residents. But increasing tuition at state schools, which drives up TOPS costs, has some legislators and experts grousing in private even as they shy away from addressing the issue publicly.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, a member of the state House Education Committee, called TOPS an entitlement program that should be capped or scaled back for the sake of preserving the state’s overall higher education system, which has been hit with repeated budget cuts.
TOPS is advertised as a way to improve access to higher education and to add incentive to achievement. But some argue that its standards are too low and that the strain it puts on the state budget indirectly leads to program cuts at colleges.
TOPS is also criticized for a perceived lack of accountability — namely the lack of recourse to collect refunds from students who lose their TOPS awards. Students can lose their awards for poor grades, for failing to take the required number of credits per semester and for not maintaining continuous full-time enrollment.
Melanie Amrhein, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, said 36 percent of the roughly 215,000 students awarded TOPS awards since its inception have lost it temporarily or permanently.
Supporters, including Louisiana House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, say TOPS should be left as is. Carter said the 60 percent graduation rate and the rise in TOPS recipients from about 18,000 students in 1998 to about 45,000 this year validates TOPS as a reward for high achievers and improves access to college.
Question of money
Barry Erwin, president of the Council for A Better Louisiana, a nonpartisan group that studies public policy issues, praises TOPS for helping high school students better prepare for college. But he also questions whether TOPS is sustainable in its current form.
The state House of Representatives Fiscal Division estimates TOPS will cost taxpayers $168 million in the current fiscal year. In five years, the program is expected to cost $233 million as colleges continue to raise tuition.
Erwin was a member of the 18-member Governance Commission created by the Legislature in 2011 to study higher education. Among the panel’s recommendations was capping the TOPS program at a set dollar figure. Another suggestion was separating the amount of money awarded from actual tuition charged and tying it to a more “appropriate” cost barometer, such as inflation or the Consumer Price Index.
Erwin said continued state budget cuts have caused Louisiana’s higher education system to spiral downward. The rising TOPS price tag plays a part in that, he said, as those costs indirectly lead to colleges having to cut academic programs.
“We’re cutting higher ed and having to raise tuition. In this year’s budget, part of the payment for TOPS came out of the higher ed appropriation. It seems we need to come to grips with this,” he said.
To balance state budgets, Jindal and the Legislature have cut more than $420 million from higher education since 2008, including $66 million in the fiscal year that started July 1. As state funding has declined, schools have increased tuition to make up the difference. Tuition hikes, in turn, cause the state to pay out more money in TOPS awards.
“It’s all coming from the same big pot of money,” Erwin said. “There are very few things in state government that are fully funded. If we’re funding TOPS fully, we’re cutting from something else.”
Other ideas floated by legislators as ways to get a handle on TOPS include requiring students to remain in the state for a certain amount of time after graduation, making students who lose TOPS pay back the money or increasing the standards required to get the award.
TOPS requires students to graduate from high school with at least a 2.5 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale in a core set of academic courses. Students also must score a 20 out of a possible 36 on the ACT standardized test or the equivalent on the SAT.
Is TOPS flawed?
Some national higher education watchers call TOPS a flawed program.
David Longanecker, president of Colorado’s Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, said the basic premise behind TOPS is to reward achievement and encourage students to stay in Louisiana. The problem, he said, is that most of the students who benefit from such programs would go to college regardless of whether they receive the scholarship.
“You’re really paying an awful lot to people who were already going to do something. And how many who are admitted to Harvard, Rice or Duke are really going to stay?” said Longanecker, who studied TOPS through his membership on the Louisiana Postsecondary Education Review Commission in 2009. PERC studied ways to streamline higher education in the state.
“Louisiana is a very poor state with not a lot of high achieving,” Longanecker said. “So you have a program going to higher-achieving students, and the most at-risk students don’t benefit. The research says you should focus on those who are at-risk, the people who, if you change the price of college, it will affect whether they go to college, not the ones who would go to college regardless of the cost.”
Longanecker compared TOPS’ seemingly unlimited funding to the state’s need-based GO Grants, which are capped at $1,000 per student.
“The GO Grants are very modest. It should be higher. There’s nothing wrong with merit-based awards …,” Longanecker said. “The real problem in America is not that students don’t go to college, but that they don’t complete college.”
Helping needy students get into college and then rewarding them for taking and completing rigorous coursework isn’t as politically popular but would be better policy for the state in the long run, he said.
“The superstars are going to college anyway. It’s the people on the margins who will fill the economic needs of the future. We need incentives for people to stay in college and get a degree. That’s where TOPS falls apart,” Longanecker said.
Georgia and Oregon models
Louisiana chose a model similar to Georgia’s financial aid system, which had a successful run until the state could no longer afford it, Longanecker said. The model used in Oregon — although not perfect — would have been a better choice, he said.
Until recently, any Georgia high school student with a B average could attend a four-year university for free as part of the HOPE Scholarship Program.
Tracy Ireland, vice president of Georgia’s Student Finance Commission, said the merit-based program is 100 percent funded by the state lottery.
“It was wildly successful at the start, but after a while, demand exceeded what the lottery could provide,” Ireland said.
The Georgia program’s success ultimately led to change, he said, as more people qualified for it while revenue in the state lottery remained relatively flat.
Last year, the Georgia Assembly adjusted the program so that HOPE award amounts are adjusted every year based on the funds available in the state’s lottery system — essentially capping the individual scholarship amounts on a yearly basis.
“No one was surprised Georgia had to redo the HOPE Scholarship,” Longanecker said. “They had to decouple it. It was tied to tuition, and now every year the projected amount it pays out is supposed to get smaller.”
Longanecker said Oregon’s model accomplishes more.
Di Saunders, director of communications for the Oregon University System, describes the need-based Oregon Opportunity Grant as using the “Shared Responsibility Model.”
The model uses a three-pronged approach, in which students contribute what they can based on a federal financial aid formula. The federal government adds a portion, and the state fills in the remainder, Saunders said.
“The Shared Responsibility Model works because students don’t get a free lunch. You want students to have some skin in the game,” she said.
But Saunders acknowledged that Oregon also had to re-work the system. She blamed it on the recession.
In the reconfigured system, Saunders said Oregon has set aside a pool of money for financial aid with every eligible student receiving the same amount. But the money is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so some students find themselves out of luck, she said.
“The shared concept is still out there, and we hope to get back to it, but the recession punched us in the face a little bit,” Saunders said.
Whether Louisiana legislators will take another look at TOPS is unclear.
The key to understanding the popularity of TOPS, according to the bill’s sponsor, former state Rep. Charles McDonald, is to look at what he called “the mess” of the state’s financial aid system before TOPS was adopted.
New Orleans oil man Pat Taylor came up with an early incarnation of TOPS in 1998 when he helped several New Orleans area students go to college. The students had maintained a B average and had taken college prep courses.
After that came the Tuition Assistance Plan adopted by the Legislature in 1989.
That plan promised free tuition at state colleges for high school students who earned a 2.5 grade-point average and scored an 18 on the ACT. Another requirement tied the scholarship to family income and the number of children in a household.
James Caillier, executive director of the Pat Taylor Foundation, called the plan “the best-spent money in Louisiana.”
Later came McDonald’s bill, the 1997 Louisiana Tuition Opportunity Program for Students — also called TOPS but later renamed after Taylor. The bill consolidated several tuition assistance plans, removed the family income limitations and allowed private colleges to participate.
“All those plans were confusing. No one knew which criteria they met or which one to apply for,” McDonald said. “I wrote the most comprehensive education bill this state had in 30 years, and it was merit-based. It had nothing to do with how much money your family had.”
Mike Foster, who as governor signed TOPS into law, said he’s against making any changes to it and called the program something Louisiana should be proud of.
“I don’t favor capping it or any means testing either. If you get a C average, you get your college paid for. There’s no excuse for any young person with any kind of get-up-and-go to not get a college education. I’m quite inflexible to messing with it.”
Foster called TOPS a gift to students like Brooke James, an LSU senior from his hometown of Franklin. James said she wouldn’t have been able to afford college without it.
James was on the Baton Rouge campus in early August helping out with freshman orientation. James said her sister Brittany didn’t get TOPS and was saddled with about $20,000 of debt when she graduated from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux.
Trying to rein in costs
State Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, has been one of the most outspoken TOPS critics in the Legislature. He has introduced five bills in five consecutive years seeking to trim costs. None made it very far.
Harrison said the state loses “millions every year” because students who lose their TOPS award or drop out of school don’t have to pay the money back.
“TOPS is not sustainable. We can’t continue with it as is because it’s not sustainable and there’s no accountability. People deserve to know where their money is going. Every other state has substantially reduced their programs except us. It’s the worst example of poor management in government,” Harrison said.
Harrison said many of his colleagues in the Legislature don’t want to take another look at TOPS because Gov. Bobby Jindal supports its current configuration.
“The administration won’t let my bills get out of committee,” Harrison said. “My colleagues go with what the administration tells them, unfortunately.”
Jindal declined to answer questions about TOPS, but his press office released a statement in his name that touted TOPS recipients’ superior graduation rates compared to nonrecipients.
“We are opposed to capping TOPS,” Jindal’s statement read in part. “We are open to strengthening the program’s academic standards that would help TOPS continue to fulfill its mission and better serve students.”
State Commissioner of Education Jim Purcell said he thinks there is only a remote chance the Legislature makes adjustments to TOPS. Instead, the state’s higher education governing body, the Board of Regents, could pursue a strategy to adjust the state’s need-based GO Grant program to give students tuition assistance on a sliding scale rather than at the fixed $1,000 amount.
Although a more nuanced GO Grant program would mean some students would be awarded less money, Purcell said studies show that when 60 percent of a student’s financial need is taken care of, he or she is more likely to stay in school through graduation.
“You want to use financial aid in a way that maximizes individual needs. I think that’s where all of higher ed is going,” Purcell said.