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Raising standards improves TOPS, saves money

Health care may be one area where common sense can bring costs under control, but another concerns the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS). This program now is estimated to eat up $117 million which, frankly, has turned into another entitlement program.

TOPS has many goals, among which are to increase retention, both of in-state students going to a Louisiana public university and keeping them going to them, and to bring better education to a greater range of high school and college students. Its latest report shows it largely succeeds, but in an inefficient way. This has caught the attention of a Legislature eager to find money.

A vital reform would make those who fail to maintain the (low) standards – 2.3 GPA initially, 2.5 after the freshman year – liable to pay back their tuition reimbursements, although a waiver could be put in for those who graduate from college within three (associates) or six (bachelors) degree. From the latest report, using an estimate of 30% suspended or cancelled from the program, of which half would not then graduate within the above time limits, at present tuition rates, that would save nearly $6 million a year (assuming it all can be collected). With this potential penalty, more incentive gets created for recipients to stay eligible.

Another reform almost as important would be to raise eligibility requirements. Right now, to go to college the minimum of 20 to qualify is below the nationwide average on the ACT, and the maintenance criterion is just a borderline B/C (as noted, less the first year). Raising both of these would be good; in fact, bringing the standard for the basic award (Opportunity) up to the award at the next level (Performance), a score of 23, would dramatically cut costs, almost $80 million. (Note that a great many four-year public universities in this country have admission standards considerably in excess of the equivalent of a 23 on the ACT; only LSU is even close to this). Establishing a 2.75 GPA also would stimulate higher achievement and make the program more like an actual “scholarship.”

Exactly the wrong approach would be to lower or remove entirely the ACT qualification. Not only would this give a green light for high school grade inflation, already a rapidly growing problem, but it would cheapen the entire program. For example, several New Orleans high schools graduate nobody who qualifies for TOPS even with its present low standards, yet do manage to graduate a number of students. This means a 3.0 at these schools probably may not even equate to a 2.0 at a quality school yet many of these students would go off to college at the taxpayer’s expense (and then almost all flunk out).

One explanation for these results, that somehow standardized testing is “biased” against racial minorities, is a tired canard which the data solidly refutes. Indeed, the primary factor affecting scores is prior preparation, and all too many schools in Louisiana fail to do this job adequately. Higher ACT scores among Louisiana youth of all races will be reduced as a problem as secondary education teachers become more demanding and less indulgent, and discipline in schools improves (and not necessarily the provision of more money).

Even more disastrous would be to place a family income cap to limit eligible applicants. This is patently unfair, denying students who have done everything they need to qualify solely on the basis of the family into which they were born and punishing parents for trying to be successful and provide their families better lives. If this is truly a “scholarship” program, “need” has nothing to do with it. Otherwise, it should be changed into a grant-like program such as the federal government’s version, where any Lousiiana college-admitted student, subject to family income levels, gets a grant. TOPS is supposed to be about improving educational attainment of the state’s citizens, not a wealth redistribution program.

Replacing beneficial standards with artificial ones is not the answer. Insistence on higher standards will cut costs, provide more motivation (even for those who then miss out on TOPS money; nothing motivates a student to learn more than knowing he’s paying his own way), and, ultimately, a higher level of educational attainment.

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