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TOPS gap makes govt, students more responsible

While current students receiving Taylor Opportunity Program for Students award got a curveball thrown at them this year, in the long run future students and taxpayers will benefit from the state’s failure to fund the program fully.

The decision by policy-makers to cover only about 93 percent of tuition due for this year and only around 41 percent for the remainder of the academic year caused consternation, but many of the state’s senior institutions found ways to mitigate costs for some or all of their award recipients. In some cases, this meant dipping into university monies or receiving one-time gifts from benefactors that clearly serve only as stopgap measures.

However, it’s on the student end of things where the shortfall can assist both them and the citizenry as well as make the program run more efficiently. Technically, applicants must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as part of the process, where any no-cost aid a student receives from the federal government offsets TOPS dollars.

But many families do not fill out the form, which gives on the basis of financial need where past a certain family income and resource level federal sources will disburse no aid. Instead, they certify that they would not qualify for assistance. Some of them actually do qualify, whether they mistake themselves as too affluent, conditions change throughout the four- to five-year window of a student’s TOPS-eligible collegiate study, or they simply react lazily to the requirements and dismiss the task out of hand.

This propensity to error has become obvious as now schools have implored students to fill out FAFSA if they have yet to do so. The state could implement administrative rules making mandatory completing the form, so no one falls through the cracks, saving taxpayer money.

Other tactics involve expanded vying for scholarships or grants from other sources, increasing work-study opportunities (through the schools, also using federal dollars), taking out loans, or working outside of school. Some families and administrators have decried these responses, saying that students having to input more of their own resources into securing financial backing represents a reneging of what they perceived as the TOPS deal: a student attains the rather minimal qualifications and allegedly the state must fulfill a “promise” of free tuition.

Yet the law never guaranteed that. It explicitly acknowledges that funding remains contingent by spelling out procedures to distribute awards when the demand of the number of qualifiers exceeds appropriated funding. This attitude of entitlement, now a generation old, encourages too much relaxation on students, who then generally do not as aggressively seek out alternative resources to pay for their schooling, nor apply themselves maximally in high school given such minimal standards to achieve a free tuition ride, and creates subsidization for marginal students to drift into (and likely after a term or two) and out of higher education without completing a degree.

The failure by the state to pay tuition in its entirety this year will act as a welcome reminder that students need to invest more of themselves into their educations, and if unwilling to do so then they should defer on attending college. A change in the law last year that essentially freezes the total award amount paid for a recipient at this year’s level unless in the future the Legislature votes as tuition increases to raise it also provides reinforcement of this point.

Encouragements for students to take greater ownership of their higher education help them and the citizenry. Taxpayers already fund a hefty chunk of that education, and with Louisiana’s below average tuition rates, students should not mind making an extra effort to secure more financial backing, if not use own resources, to pay their fair share.

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