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Confusion distracts from stricter, merit-based TOPS

Louisiana legislators finally show signs of grasping the need for reforming Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars grants, but conceptual confusion about the purpose of these prevents them from offering the proper policy solution – a situation they caused themselves.

The state took over the original program, founded when the late Patrick Taylor about a quarter century promised junior high students at a school serving a poor New Orleans neighborhood he would pay for their college tuition if they could get admitted into a university with a B average on a college preparatory curricula, on the basis that it was a needs-based program. Then, about a decade after that pledge, the Legislature decided to make it a scholarship-like program by removing any needs test. As a result, the cost has grown substantially to an estimated $135 million a year.

But the error made was that it never was a true scholarship program. A meaningful scholarship program implies excellence in achievement that merits a reward for that. TOPS standards, by contrast, connote not excellence, but adequacy. Besides following the specified curriculum, for tuition at a baccalaureate institution all one has to do is score, in essence, about the national average American College Test score for all takers whether they go to four-year colleges, which is an unchallenging 20 (scaled 15 to 36, where a few years ago the test was redefined to raise the minimum from 8, in effect boosting scores artificially), and attain a 2.5 grade point average on the core courses (which actually could be lower overall and the presence of which has triggered a remarkable grade inflation in Louisiana high schools).

In other words, TOPS has become an entitlement with some positive but also many negative effects. As previously noted, it may help some deserving students who otherwise could not get the means to attend college, but at the same time it sends marginal students with no real commitment to higher education many of whom will quit and for others it lulls them into cruising through high school without tapping into greater potential, knowing they have a mostly-free ride ahead guaranteed (TOPS does not pay for fees, books, or, if needed, living expenses). Thus, it is entirely appropriate to raise its standards to create a more efficient use of education dollars and to make it a genuine merit scholarship program rewarding excellence, not mediocrity.

However, some misguided folks want to return it to a need-based instrument, creating some kind of means test to it. This means better students who happen to come from backgrounds with more resources will not receive taxpayer dollars for tuition, while less capable students will. Besides the inherent unfairness of the situation where lesser achievers are rewarded at the expense of those more deserving, this violates the very conceptual definition of what a scholarship is. They should be awarded solely on the basis of academic merit, for what one has demonstrably earned, not on the basis of who you are.

Anyway, Louisiana already has a modest program called GO Grants that is need-based, and the federal government’s Pell Grant program is generous. On top of all of this, deserving students have access to scholarships from universities and other organizations and also government-backed lending to pay for school. And, of course, there’s the old-fashioned way of doing it (pursued by yours truly) when scholarships and loans aren’t enough, by working while going to school, or saving up for it. So it’s hard to argue that anybody who is bright enough to be admitted into and committed enough to stay in college will not be able to pay for it. Why duplicate all this with additional taxpayer money instead of spending it on those whose scholastic achievements merit reward?

Therefore, it would make sense to raise TOPS standards, such as to 3.0 in the core and a 24 on the ACT (Louisiana State University Baton Rouge’s standard minimum for admittance) for baccalaureate study, and apply the present baccalaureate ACT and GPA standards to receive a smaller scholarship intended to pay for community college (currently the same GPA but a score of 17 on the ACT). This would utilize resources better and more efficiently, allow potentially capable students at least to start at community colleges, and save taxpayers money. And if Gov. Bobby Jindal’s idea to take some revenues already dedicated and instead dedicate them to funding TOPS, with the small dedication to it already at this lower expense level that might fully fund it without general fund appropriations.

At present, the half-scholarship, half-needs-based TOPS is neither a wise nor an efficient use of the peoples’ money. Making it based genuinely and only on merit will produce more prepared and committed students for fewer dollars that will generate more productivity out of higher education expenditures. Legislators should understand this as they debate TOPS reform bills in the upcoming legislative regular session.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When you write an article about something you should research it first. The standards for some smaller schools is less than 3.0. However, it is higher for LSU and a few other universities in Louisiana. You will receive more money with higher scores. It was also designed to keep the brightest students in the state.
Lisa in BR