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Legislature should run with Edwards' TOPS budget

Is liberal Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards the guy conservatives have been waiting for, at least as far as reform of the Taylor Opportunity Programs for Students?

Last week, the Edwards Administration announced that for fiscal year 2017 Edwards would budget the program that pays full tuition for students with mediocre-and-above credentials at only about 20 percent of its predicted demand, using only funding dedicated to it. It forecast that would mean that instead of an American College Test score of 20 to qualify, the standard would go as high as 28. This would occur unless a combination of cuts elsewhere and tax hikes freed up money, with the more pledged the lower the ACT cutoff score until it reached the legal minimum of 21.

To which those who care about efficient use of taxpayer dollars and rewarding quality should respond, “Please, can we?” TOPS, with its four-ninths dropout rate as a consequence of allowing marginal achievers to capture free tuition to attend a state university (guaranteed admission as the TOPS standards exceed entrance requirements for most state universities), acts much more like an entitlement program than a true scholarship program and thereby carries the same ills: it discourages more than marginal achievement, 40 percent or more of it gets wasted, and it forces taxpayers to subsidize a number of indifferent students who might better serve society and themselves through not attempting collegiate work. Even worse, unlike most entitlement programs, its fa├žade of merit standards – so low they hardly meet the definition – ends up having taxpayers subsidize higher-income families, who defend it by saying they pay enough in taxes and ought to have at least one program that directly benefits them.

Both the law and regulation create this culling of eligible recipients as proposed by Edwards’ budget when more qualify than financially the state supports. The process removes first those who do not fill out a federal financial aid form, then begins at the lowest possible qualification level and eliminate scores by whole numbers. When elimination of a score cohort results in money left over, then all in the last eliminated cohort are ranked by resources and qualification begins at the bottom of that and moves higher until money runs out – introducing a redistributionist element into the exercise at its lowest boundary.

Reviewing this procedure, understand that even if denying four-fifths of qualifiers by past data would put the lowest qualifying ACT at 28, if implemented in practical terms a number of students scoring lower still would win scholarships. Schools likely would exercise more flexibility in awarding campus-based scholarships to students who score lower than that or, where they cannot, may choose to supplement scholarships to make them more valuable than TOPS, which even at its highest level does not pay for all fees or other things like books. This would create a ripple effect of high scorers not choosing TOPS in favor of more lucrative offers even from the same university, opening up awards to lower-scoring students.

By funding TOPS only this much, by in essence saving $240 million (keeping in mind probably half of this gets wasted by dropouts who never complete degrees as few who score as high as 28 will drop out), that already puts a tremendous down payment on closing the FY 2017 gap. It also creates a genuine merit-based program that in turn presents greater incentive for higher achievement and better learning in high school, for a raising of the bar makes things more competitive and brings out greater work ethic. Consequentially, some students who may not have pushed themselves in high school but as a result of these higher standards achieve better who still fail to win a TOPS award may earn other scholarships instead, or at the least make themselves better prepared for college or even want to attend it.

Of course, most of Louisiana higher education will kick and scream against this (interestingly, not the handful of schools who attract hardly any TOPS qualifiers because it won’t affect them materially) because it serves as a form of additional taxpayer subsidy to institutions. In response, the Legislature should repeal its power to have to approve of tuition hikes beyond 10 percent annually (provided schools meet certain largely undemanding performance standards they unilaterally may increase tuition below that level) and thereby let institutions charge whatever the market will bear in this historically underpriced area of service provision. By keeping a lid on TOPS appropriations, that removes a chief objection of some in the Legislature: that to allow schools free hand in tuition decisions cedes control of a major entitlement program’s spending; intentionally limiting that spending to proceeds from the dedicated fund moots that argument.

What Edwards conceives as a tool to bludgeon clay-footed Republicans into supporting in sufferable tax increases instead they need to see as an opportunity finally to move TOPS from an entitlement to a reward for excellence with all of the salutary implications that brings. They should thank him and keep that aspect unchanged in the budget they should produce that otherwise radically should differ from that which Edwards tried to foist upon them.

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