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Watering down TOPS subverts its beneficial impact

A recent opinion piece by a private university leader in Louisiana suggests less in the way of achieving educational excellence for those who attend college in the state than it does to encourage increase lining of his school’s pockets.

Dillard University Pres. Walter Kimbrough, upon reviewing the results of a recent report concerning statistics about the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which pays tuition at the highest state-school level for any university in the state for students who have graduated from high schools in state, or who were home schooled, or who meet other special qualifications if certain qualifications are met, declared the program “is more of an engine of inequality than it is of opportunity.” The program began out of a private effort by philanthropist Patrick Taylor to fund college for at-risk children in New Orleans who were able to graduate from high school.

But when the state institutionalized this into law using public money in 1998, the program as a tool to send students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to college became only one goal for use of that money. Incredibly modest merit standards were put into place for qualification to earn it, which today means that a student graduating from a high school to pursue non-technical study must pass there a certain number of core courses, achieve a 2.5 grade point average, and score a 20 composite on the American College Test.

The report noted that students from higher-income families were more likely to qualify for TOPS, given their higher average ACT scores and that they were more likely to take the core courses. Kimbrough found this disappointing, in that “TOPS is structured to give money to top students, from top-income families, who attend top schools with top curriculums … a program that exacerbates income inequality and limits financial assistance to those who need it the most … [lawmakers have] rigged the system to give the money to those most likely to succeed.”

So, he writes, “if we are trying to improve opportunity, it means helping students who cannot go to college without additional financial support … most TOPS recipients come from families that will pay for them to go to college, with or without this grant. TOPS essentially serves as a tax break couched as a reward for academic rigor and success.” His solution, then, is “[c]ap the income level of families that are eligible for TOPS ($60,000), lower the ACT score and raise the grade-point average,” even though “I am asking the Louisiana Legislature to create rules that are against the self-interests of its members,” because the current set of standards “essentially ensures that their kids will be TOPS-eligible.”

Never mind that Kimbrough tries to resurrect the original intent of the program to justify his changes, basically transforming it from a very watered-down merit basis (the ACT score requirement is set at the state average, which is below the national average but never less than the current 20) into primarily a need-based instrument – an approach rejected in 1998. The population to which he seeks to cater is that which by their school is assigned decent grades (even as the state does not release GPA information, grade inflation is such these days that anecdotal evidence shows that for state public high schools regularly around a third of their students graduate with honors, typically above a 3.0) but who perform significantly below the national average on the ACT. This condition seems indicative of current performances at a number of Louisiana high schools, almost all of these primarily attended by students from lower-income families, that have few students qualify for TOPS.

Whether intentionally, Kimbrough’s argument implies that household income drives ability to secure a merit-based TOPS. Yet this is an error in logic because income does not cause achievement, but only is associated with it. The genuine cause, which affects both income and achievement and therefore makes them appear causally related, is that the traits and attitudes that cause parents to succeed financially in most instances get passed along to their children and are the same components to succeeding academically. It’s not degree of wealth that is the largest factor in academic success, but adhering to certain cultural values.

So if the state is going to give money away to encourage academic achievement, it makes no sense to distribute it on the basis of presumed ability to pay. Possessing discrete attitudes is the appropriate object of subsidization, which is independent of household wealth: except in the cases where luck intervenes decisively, those with wealth without the optimal attitudes will squander it and those without it who do have them will find a way to get ahead. This makes his plan entirely unsuitable if the goal is academic achievement.

That may not be it, but if that is need-based, there’s a different program specific to Louisiana for that, GO Grants, which can address the additional expenditures for those admitted to a college that otherwise might keep them out even if they earn tuition. If that’s what Kimbrough wants to stump for, he should say he wants to defund TOPS at the expense of this, not to change its essential nature as an encourager of academic achievement that leads to college study.

Which points out the most bizarre aspect of his argument: if TOPS was altered along his lines, there would be students who could qualify for TOPS that could not qualify to be admitted to a public four-year university in the state. In essence, those entrance requirements for those just graduated from high school now match TOPS qualifications. Unless policy-makers wanted to juice the enrollments of community colleges, there seems to be little point to this.

Unless taking into account that private and proprietary schools also qualify. While TOPS mainly is to encourage students to attend Louisiana public universities – another main motivation behind it was to provide an incentive to stop a reputed brain drain of the state’s brighter students from heading out of state – the tuition equivalent of what in practice turns out for most recipients (some qualify for higher amounts whose GPA and ACT scores are significantly higher than the minimum) to be an amount up to the rate of tuition charged at Louisiana State University Baton Rouge can be paid to a non-public school certified to operate in the state. It’s not likely to pay fully that amount, but this subsidization does create an incentive to attend those schools.

And, guess what? The average ACT score of students admitted at Kimbrough’s Dillard is between its lowest quartile cutoff of 17 and highest of 20 – in other words, well below the current TOPS minimum and national average. The policy changes that Kimbrough advocates would serve to shovel more tax dollars into Dillard’s coffers. Naturally, he fails to mention that possible outcome in his piece, leading to wondering whether legislators are the actual objects in question related to this effort who are acting in self-interest.

You can fault TOPS for not being an efficient use of taxpayer dollars in its not being a true scholarship program – it’s hard to argue that it is when probably half the state’s graduating classes can qualify for it – that therefore subsidizes weak and/or unmotivated students who end up wasting these public resources by flunking out or not completing college degrees. But it does not serve as “an engine of inequality” and of inopportunity because of its current standards, if inefficiently, that reward those whose practices lead to success after schooling. Those without a willingness or inability to inculcate such standards stand little chance of achieving significant academic success in any event.

Just paying to send more students of marginal or worse capability to college does little to increase the eventual pool of those in the workforce with meaningful college degrees. If you want to find donors to subsidize such students, great. But don’t ask taxpayers to submit to an exercise the major impact of which would be to send more taxpayer resources to non-state schools while relatively few students of that kind graduate into real success.

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