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Idea TOPS significantly keeps LA students absurd

It’s time to retire once and for all the shibboleth that Louisiana in-state higher education tuition costs without widely-available and fully-funded Taylor Opportunity Program for Students awards drive students out-of-state.

Some families, and even administrators who should know better, interviewed in an article for the Baton Rouge Advocate asserted that essentially full funding of TOPS for this school year generally made the difference in students’ decisions to enroll in a Louisiana higher education institution instead of heading elsewhere. For academic year 2016, TOPS only paid around 70 percent of the full year’s tuition because the state did not fund it fully.

In the past year, the assertion floated around that partial funding caused students to look across state lines for their university degrees, which backers of covering the entire tuition amount this year utilized in support of their cause. But, in reality, such a claim hardly validly explains such motivations, yet may point to the real reason going out of state might prove tempting for some.

The article quoted one parent as stating had not TOPS received full funding, her eligible child probably would have headed to the University of Mississippi. However, that seems hardly likely as the only reason. Consider that undergraduate tuition and fees where the student will attend, Louisiana State University, this year for 12 hours for two semesters is around $11,300. But at Ole Miss, as an out-of-state student, the cost is more than twice as much at over $23,500 for the same load.

Possibly in some cases a student might have the ability to declare in-state residency in more than one state, such as having divorced biological parents in different states. But these situations would produce a fairly small subset of students dually eligible. For most college-bound individuals in Louisiana, it would make little sense to choose Ole Miss at approaching $24,000 annually over LSU if tuition would be, assuming TOPS eligibility and it funded at last year’s level, about one-tenth of that instead of zero.

That’s an example, but is typical. Seldom if ever will out-of-state tuition beat in-state tuition for Louisiana schools even without TOPS, so that the “they’ll go out-of-state unless we make TOPS awards as high as possible and distributed to as many as possible” fails as an argument necessarily to fund TOPS at the same level and for as many students as it does at present – unless throwing in other financial aid.

On this point, that could prove crucial. As an example, LSU notoriously receives relatively few endowment dollars for academics when stacked up against comparable institutions, and presently only has a bit over $400 million socked away for the system (almost all of it for LSU). By contrast, Ole Miss had an endowment twice as large, and it doesn’t help that across the way the Texas A&M University System has 22 times the LSU System’s amount and the University of Texas System a staggering 51 times greater amount. No relief comes from the north, either, where the University of Arkansas has an endowment four times the size of the LSU System’s. Even Mississippi State University has about $50 million more.

Of course, how Louisiana institutions try to beat that without costing taxpayers more is to have fees – about $3,300 worth for AY 2017 not subject to TOPS. This year none of them raised tuition but jacked up fees in the hundreds of dollars, and the practice of heavy on fees, light on tuition likely will continue into the future as a result of legislation in 2016 and 2017 that set the TOPS award level at AY 2016 levels, where any increase beyond that would require legislative assent.

For that reason, advocates of lesser student responsibility for their educations compensated by greater taxpayer burden will wish to continue spreading the canard that TOPS funding crucially keeps students in-state. If so, that’s only because, even with substantially higher tuitions, nearby institutions have many more and probably much more generous benefactors who permit them to dangle enough financial aid to make up the difference. The argument that a generous TOPS alone prevents a significant portion of college-bound students from fleeing Louisiana is intellectually bankrupt.

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