Letter from LSU professor, chancellor emeritus: Here's simple way to reduce TOPS cost, prevent brightest from fleeing Louisiana _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Dr. James Wharton, chancellor emeritus, LSU, makes a motion during a meeting of the La. Postsecondary Education Review Commission in November 2009.

We keep reading in your publication and hearing from the Legislature that the cost of the TOPS program is soaring out of control.

Often it is attributed to the increase in enrollment of TOPS students when, in fact, that enrollment increase was only 13.7 percent over the 11-year period from 2003 to 2014. That increase was almost exclusively the result of an increase in minority residents qualifying for TOPS. Nearly all of the increase in the cost of TOPS came as a result of legislatively approved tuition increases.

As a result of the tuition increases, the cost of TOPS increased from $116,656,348 in fiscal year 2008 to $252,552,213 in 2015, an increase of $135,895,865; however, $65 million of that increase was covered by a constitutional amendment approved by the voters of Louisiana to use tobacco settlement revenue for the TOPS program. This leaves $70,895,865 as the increased cost to the state general fund.

Over approximately the same period, the Legislature returned $700 million to the state general fund by cutting the budgets of public colleges and universities. The net gain for the state general fund was $629,104,135. That is approximately the amount laundered back to the state general fund on the backs of students and families, but there were no tax increases.

But the state will save even more money. Our best students are accepting scholarships and planning to leave Louisiana in much higher numbers as a result of all the uncertainty and bad publicity surrounding college and university budgets as well as the TOPS program. In 1967, the year one prominent senator graduated from LSU, tuition was $110 per year and the state general fund paid 95 percent of the academic cost of attending LSU. In 1973, another prominent senator graduated and tuition had increased to $163 per year. All students had major scholarships, which they didn’t have to earn. Today, tuition and fees at LSU total $9,842 and the state is covering less than 30 percent of the academic cost. With TOPS included, the state share is 40 percent.

There is a simple way to reduce the cost of TOPS. The Legislature has the authority to reduce tuition. A 10 percent reduction in tuition would reduce the cost of the TOPS program and generate a savings to the state general fund of nearly $30 million. Those savings could and should be appropriated back to the universities in accordance with the formula. The state would look better nationally in terms of state appropriations for higher education. Several of the universities would come out ahead. TOPS students wouldn’t care. Non-TOPS students and graduate students would love it. The larger universities would lose some funds, but the shift away from LSU, University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Louisiana Tech already is taking place.

James Wharton

professor and chancellor emeritus

Baton Rouge