Our Views: A new look at standard for TOPS

If there is any more of a sacred cow in the State Capitol, it is the costly TOPS tuition waivers that are growing yearly. We agree with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber that the program deserves a critical look, with the aim of either increasing its academic requirements or setting a limit on the grant to students to curb the cost to the taxpayer.

“Because of the importance of tuition and fee authority for higher education funding,” a new BRAC study said, the group “recommends that changes be made to the TOPS program in a manner that protects the program’s intent and elevates its goals.”

That’s the key: elevate the program’s goals.

Named after the late oilman and philanthropist Patrick F. Taylor, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students was intended to promote college graduation, and for too many that laudable goal has not been attained. Louisiana’s political populism set academic standards too low.

TOPS students are more likely to graduate than the general student population — no surprise there, as they are subject to some academic requirements. The program encourages students to complete college in four years, and encourages them to take more difficult courses in high school to become eligible for TOPS. These are real benefits.

“Nonetheless,” said the BRAC study, “Louisiana is incurring costs for two out of five TOPS recipients who do not graduate.”

TOPS requirements are lower than other such programs in Georgia and Florida, BRAC reported. These Southern states have been generous, but they clearly want some bang for the buck, and Louisiana students haven’t been held to more than a basic standard.

“Louisiana’s TOPS program has some of the lowest standards” compared to similar programs, the BRAC study said. “As a result, Louisiana should consider raising the eligibility requirements for the TOPS program.”

The full BRAC study can be found at http://www.brac.org. It deals with the complex relationship of tuition increases and TOPS costs; Louisiana schools can’t get political approval to pass on rising costs in part because the existing TOPS structure ties a large part of the cost of tuition not to students and their families but to the state’s general fund.

A reform agenda for TOPS would address several issues. It would raise, over time, the academic requirements for a TOPS check. It could cap the amount that the “scholarship” pays.

The state could also raise the amount of need-based aid that is given to students from poorer families, another area where Louisiana is behind its peers.

Pat Taylor became famous for pledging to students in a poor New Orleans school that if they made the grades, he’d see they went to college. The BRAC reforms do not do violence to that noble goal, but make the far broader state program more financially responsible and sustainable.

In terms of academic standards and aid to students who most need it, Louisiana remains out of step with the nation. We applaud BRAC for its thorough approach to a politically difficult topic.