Our Views: Slow rise for TOPS

If it does not exactly rein in the costs of the popular TOPS tuition grants, a bill by Sen. Jack Donahue makes a few sensible changes that will save the taxpayers some money.

The relatively low academic requirements were always a problem in the program now known as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. The idea of Donahue, R-Mandeville, is to level up the requirements, modestly and over a period of time.

As chairman of the Finance Committee, Donahue is one of the senators with the most responsibility for sorting out the annual difficulties of the state budget. So he is better informed about the rising impact of TOPS on the general fund.

It is an entitlement program. If you meet the academic requirements, you get the tuition waiver.

If it does not pay the full cost of a Louisiana college education, it’s still a nice thing to have. But it is costing the state north of $220 million a year, a vast sum compared with the promises made back in the 1990s about its limited budgetary impact.

The prospect of up to a $300 million hit to the state general fund in the next five years is one scenario that has played out in briefings before Senate Finance. Donahue has a right to be worried.

Donahue’s Senate Bill 520 would increase the minimum grade-point average for an award from only 2.5 to 2.75, and a score of 21 instead of 20 on the ACT admissions test. It would not start until the 2017-18 school year, so people get plenty of warning.

This is just not much to write home about, perhaps, but it’s more courageous than most politicians are.

Where Donahue would tighten up more would be in the higher “performance award” cash category for students with better ACT scores. Those would increase to 25 from 23, and the “honor award” to 29 from 27.

Neither change strikes us as particularly Draconian.

We hope that Donahue’s bill gets a respectful hearing. Far too often, legislators refuse to face the financial implications of a popular program.

Donahue would dedicate a portion of the budgetary savings to the Louisiana Go Grant Program, which helps students in financial need go to college. TOPS is, in government-speak, not “means-tested.”Because students from more affluent families get a better start in life and in education, they tend to get the most benefits of an entitlement like TOPS.

Yet, we don’t think this should be a class-warfare discussion. Good students earn TOPS, if the standards are increased, as Donahue proposes. In a perfect world, the increases in gpa and so forth could be higher, in our view. But for the moment, Donahue’s responsible approach to this issue should get support from lawmakers in both chambers and the governor, if the bill gets to his desk.