Survey finds support for tougher academic standards for TOPS

Legislators who have tried and failed to pass laws that would rein in the runaway costs of TOPS, the state’s merit-based college scholarship, could find broader support by focusing on the program’s academic requirements rather than its financial cost to the state.

A survey of nearly 1,000 Louisiana residents has been noticed by officials. Part of the 2013 Louisiana Survey, conducted by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab, reported that 78 percent of respondents are against reducing the total amount of money students receive from the program.

Another majority — 57 percent — of the survey’s respondents support increasing the academic requirements for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.

Louisiana students need a minimum 2.5 grade-point-average on a 4.0 scale and a minimum 20 score on the ACT standardized test to be eligible. TOPS pays tuition and some fees for students who meet certain academic requirements.

The bulk of TOPS funding comes out of the state general fund, meaning that as tuition rises, so does the state’s financial burden to honor the popular scholarship program.

Tuition has risen by more than $330 million since 2008 as colleges and universities have tried to offset a portion of the roughly $650 million in state budget cuts to higher education during the same time period.

“We’ve kept it at a modest standard for a long time,” said Barry Erwin, president of Council for A Better Louisiana, a group that advocates on education and financial issues. “It makes sense that while we’re raising standards in other areas, we should also do it for TOPS.”

Erwin said the questions surrounding TOPS are not centered on likeability, but affordability.

Both Erwin and State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell have supported action to limit TOPS in some way, including raising the academic requirements.

Purcell said the state will have to take a long look at how to sustain the program as state budgets have become leaner in recent years.

The LSU survey’s findings were released just before the latest attempt to limit TOPS died swiftly in the state Legislature.

Senate Bill 83 sponsored by state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, would have limited awards at current tuition levels plus 10 percent.

The proposed cap in SB83 would be tied to a national higher education index meaning that as tuition costs rise around the country, Louisiana’s higher education leaders would have the opportunity to come to the Legislature every two years to get approval to raise the cap.

The Senate Education Committee rejected the bill Thursday.

Morrish described his bill as a tough sell to legislators when many of the state’s middle-class parents have said they believe the program is the only benefit they personally receive from state government.

Morrish also said the governor’s comments on the matter didn’t help.

In early April, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced publicly that he would not sign any legislation that limited TOPS awards. The governor called TOPS a “good investment for the state,” before adding that it encourages students to pursue postsecondary degrees at Louisiana schools.

Despite the governor’s position on the issue, lawmakers and higher education leaders have been working for years to find some solution to increasing strain TOPS puts on the state’s budget.

Since its inception nearly 25 years ago, TOPS has paid tuition and fees for close to 620,000 Louisiana high school students to attend in-state colleges and universities.

The program has been extremely popular with the public as it has grown from 18,000 students in 1998 to 45,000 students in 2012. But as its popularity grew, so did its costs. The price tag for TOPS has risen from about $780,000 in 1989 to $168 million this year. It’s expected to grow to about $204 million next year.

Kirby Goidel, a political analyst and director of the LSU Public Policy Research Lab, referred to TOPS “as just one of those issues” that is too politically popular for the majority of the Legislature to touch.

Legislators, he said, have not done an especially good job articulating the problem with TOPS — its steadily increasing price tag — to the public.

A lawmaker could make that case to the public, but not without significant political costs, Goidel said.

LSU’s 2013 Louisiana Survey found that support for increasing the academic requirements is divided along racial and partisan lines. Forty-five percent of non-white respondents support increasing academic requirements compared with 64 percent of white respondents, according to the survey. Forty-six percent of respondents who identified themselves as “strong Democrats” support increasing academic requirements compared with 69 percent of “strong Republicans,” the survey showed.

LSU interviewed 930 Louisiana residents between Feb. 8 and March 17, 574 of whom were on landline telephones and the rest were on cellphones. A total of 63.6 percent of the respondents were white, 29.1 percent were black and 40.7 percent made more than $50,000 per year. The LSU survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

“Most people see it as a merit-based scholarship. I think that’s why people are OK with increasing the academic requirements,” Goidel said.