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TOPS changes this session bring little benefit

Perhaps time constraints made it necessary, but legal changes being made to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars provide next to no resolution to its neither fish-nor-fowl status that promotes inefficiency and waste that beg for follow-up.

As the Louisiana Legislature’s regular session wraps up, three bills have or look likely to become law altering the nature of TOPS, which pays for tuition at Louisiana institutions of higher education for at least below-average scorers on standardized tests with at least decent high school marks having taken a certain core of courses. Together, these changes will delink tuition rates with payouts beginning next year unless the Legislature specifically authorizes full tuition coverage in the future, create higher standards to receive the highest awards that pay a few hundred dollars above tuition, and when not fully appropriated to fund all awards to give out partial awards to all qualifiers.

The last does nothing positive for the program except curtail waste. As typically over 40 percent in a cohort before graduating end up losing their awards – recipients must take at least 12 hours a semester, maintain a grade point average not much above the requirement to stay a student in good standing, and have only eight regular semesters of funding – most of this failure occurs in the lowest achievement bracket. Although detailed records remain unpublicized, from the public reports required by law the average winner scored a 24 on the American College Test while the average score of those with cancelled awards was under 23. So, the fewer dollars going into a wasteful program, the fewer that get wasted.

The most sensible approach simply would raise standards, making for a true scholarship program that awards for genuine achievement, which the law originally would have done when a funding shortfall occurred. Waste from cancellation would have declined dramatically along with the overall program cost. Even gently bumping up standards would not really exclude mediocre achievers; by cutting about a quarter of TOPS spending or $72 million, the ACT qualifying score of 20 below the national average of 21 would rise only to 22.

However, as following this process would have yanked awards from students already in college, a fairness argument that students once qualified should continue receiving them as long as they maintained the qualification standards makes some sense, so the change to give out partial awards would allow for that. With its subpar standards and disproportionate waste from the low achievers intact, this approach tackles the symptom but not the disease.

Without having to make appropriations decisions in the breach, policy-makers can shoot for something better. In its present form with such undemanding standards, it takes on more the form of an entitlement than anything else that only marginally encourages excellence. Some actually defend this arrangement by arguing to extend standards beyond mediocrity disproportionately would exclude minority and/or poorer students or that the state provides so much assistance to lower-income individuals redistributed from the middle class on up that through TOPS better-off families, by taking away tuition costs for many of its college-bound young adults, can have a piece of the action as well.

Such an attitude betrays the populist strain in Louisiana’s political culture inimical to TOPS promoting excellence. Still, another approach actually accepts the near-egalitarian entitlement nature of TOPS to attempt another avenue of instilling excellence: through school choice. The state could transform TOPS into a voucher-like program, removing all state funding from institutions except for what these get from TOPS through student choices in where to attend college.

The main problem of TOPS is its weird combination of an entitlement masquerading as merit-based. Thus, future public policy must address making it, like most others states’ similar programs, either a true scholarship program that entices excellence out of students, or a voucher program where the market instills excellence into the product delivered by institutions that would spill into student achievement by the need to retain eligibility. Either approach would reduce program spending and make the dollars spent used more efficiently.

Choosing one or the other would improve dramatically the current arrangement that has led to ballooning costs (that would go higher still to fund fully if Louisiana did not price its tuition so relatively low, ranking on average only 34th among the states and District of Columbia) and inefficient use of those dollars as witnessed by the cancellation rate. Understanding that TOPS measures coming from this session serve only as emergency reactions or marginal changes confirms that the reform process of it should be far from over.

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