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Merit-based, integrated TOPS key to achieving its goal

A continuing tight budgetary environment in Louisiana has gotten observers to consider picking up the knife to slaughter some sacred cows. First it was the motion picture tax credit, and now perhaps the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students?

This space on several occasions has spilled the ills of the program that pays for all tuition costs at any public community or technical college, or at any public baccalaureate institution and perhaps even more in some cases, or a portion of tuition at a private baccalaureate institution, for high school graduates in the state or of families claiming residency in the state. The idea was to get presumably college-ready students to a college in the state, drawing both on those who might have left the state and those who otherwise did not have the financial means to attend college.

But because of the program’s relatively low standards and tying the award directly to tuition levels, it did not evolve into a true scholarship reward but rather an entitlement program. Among its several pernicious effects – inflating the number of marginal students who would not complete degrees going to college, providing a disincentive to achieve past a point of mediocrity in high school, providing an incentive for colleges to raise tuition and to lower standards to capture revenues without regard to quality and efficiency – in these times the fact that it self-defeats greater reliance on tuition as a way of responding to budget reductions seems to be getting the increased attention of policy-makers.

Proponents of the program as is, among them most disappointingly Gov. Bobby Jindal, say that it isn’t broken because it has increased the proportion of Louisianans going to college and they complete it at a rate about a third higher than those who don’t receive it. But this analysis is somewhat selective: in 2011-12, about 45,000 awards were granted, while the number in college in the state was over 225,000, meaning only about 20 percent of all enrollees were in the program (although probably closer to 50 percent when considering only full-time students) and, because there are at least low standards as opposed to none, you would expect the cohort with TOPS to be more capable and therefore more likely to graduate. It’s not the program that causes graduation; it’s the self-selectivity of the populations that does.

So the policy goal must be to have TOPS as part of a strategy to assist deserving students who otherwise might not go to college in Louisiana while mitigating its negative spillover effects. A suggestion using the philosophy adopted by Oregon sets a good framework. That state has qualifying students apply for other forms of financial aid and then, if sufficient funding exists, makes up the rest with a TOPS-like structure.

This can be improved by making TOPS a true scholarship program by increasing standards (such as to Louisiana State University Baton Rouge’s admittance criteria of an American College Test score of 24 and a 3.0 grade point average). While some argue this should become a need-based program instead, that makes the program unfair to students who they or their families must pay just because they have resources, removes an incentive to learn more in high school for them, and can be gotten around through gamesmanship (like the student declaring independence from family after a year, as out-of-state students do to gain in-state tuition rates).

Rather, it makes more sense to put the state’s need-based GO Grant program, currently set at a flat $1,000, on a sliding scale and create a state-backed lending program, both of which would be a part of the calculation of the altered TOPS program amount. This decouples TOPS from tuition charged and creates an incentive for students who have borrowed to pay more attention to their studies, because they can’t write off failures or exits as TOPS now allows but instead will owe money, as well as lets the state get back much money that is wasted by students failing to complete courses and degrees.

In short, at present TOPS works like a welfare program except, unlike the resources transfer programs where at least some of the recipients have genuine cause and needs beyond their own power for the assistance, this one is purely want-based. That kind of basis means policy to address it must be based upon merit, not entitlement, in order for it to accomplish its goal without undue spillover costs. Making it into a need-based program, as others advocate, not only keeps these costs and is unfair, but also will fail to address its intent sufficiently. Hopefully, policy-makers all the way up to Jindal will understand this and act accordingly.

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