Audit: Half of TOPS students lose awards

Nearly half of the college students awarded the TOPS college scholarship between 2002 and 2008 lost their award, costing the state about $165 million, according to a Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office report.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students was started in 1998 to provide financial assistance to college students and to give high school students an incentive to pursue a postsecondary education in Louisiana.

TOPS pays tuition and some fees for students who meet certain academic requirements. 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.

Students generally lose their TOPS scholarships for poor academic performance.

The audit report shows that 44 percent, or more than 42,000 students, lost their awards between 2002 and 2008. Most of those students — 56 percent — lost the scholarship during their first year in college.

Students who met the lowest eligibility requirement for TOPS were the most likely to have their award canceled, the audit says.

The report puts into focus a debate that has been going on for years both in higher education circles and at the State Capitol.

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.

The program’s costs have risen from about $780,000 in 1989 to $168 million this fiscal year. One of the state’s accounting offices, the House Fiscal Division, projects the program to cost the state $340 million during the 2017-18 fiscal year as tuition keeps rising.

Numerous attempts over the years to cap TOPS awards at a certain dollar amount have failed in the state Legislature, including this year’s Senate Bill 83 sponsored by state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings.

The program has been widely popular with the public, with state records showing TOPS growing from 18,000 students in 1998 to 45,000 students last year. Consequently, a majority of legislators passing through the State Capitol over the past several decades have been reluctant to tweak it.

SB83 died shortly after Gov. Bobby Jindal said he would not sign legislation that limited TOPS awards. The governor called TOPS a good investment for the state that leads to more students going to college at Louisiana schools.

While capping TOPS has been politically unpopular historically, a recent survey conducted by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab suggests that the state could find a more palatable alternative to rein in the program’s runaway costs.

The study reported that 57 percent of respondents support increasing the program’s academic requirements.

State Commissioner of Education Jim Purcell has said raising the academic standards for TOPS could help sustain the program’s future as the state struggles to generate revenue.

But in some ways, TOPS has been a successful program for the state. The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, which administers TOPS, responded to the audit report in writing by pointing out that 80 percent of the money paid for scholarship awards went to students who completed the TOPS program.

LOSFA Executive Director Melanie Amrhein also wrote that analysis shows that “even if their award is canceled, TOPS students are more likely to stay in college, graduate and secure employment in this state.”

“Louisiana students and their parent taxpayers have benefited from TOPS,” Amrhein added. “Prior to TOPS there was little incentive for high schools to offer and for the average student to take rigorous college preparatory courses.”