Former LSU chancellor James Wharton defends TOPS as valuable investment for Louisiana _lowres

Photo by Patrick Dennis

As lawmakers in recent weeks have lamented the growing cost of TOPS to the state, one former LSU chancellor stressed the benefits the scholarship program has yielded for the state.

James Wharton, LSU’s chancellor from 1981 to 1988 and a current board member of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, told the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students has changed the educational landscape in Louisiana for the better, and continues to do so.

His comments came a day after the Louisiana Legislature passed a budget that for the first time in its history left the TOPS program not fully funded. As it stands, TOPS is only half funded for the upcoming school year, so unless legislators find or raise additional revenue for the $300 million program in the special session, then TOPS recipients could be on the hook for half of their tuition costs.

Wharton said if TOPS isn’t fully funded then it could have a detrimental impact on college and university enrollments.

“The worst thing a parent can tell their kids is that we can’t afford to send you to college,” he said. “Enrollment is going to go down at LSU, there’s absolutely no question about it.”

Wharton also dismissed the notion, voiced by many legislators and some educational advocate groups, that the eligibility requirements for TOPS are too low.

Year after year, lawmakers have submitted bills that aim to raise the GPA and ACT requirements for the scholarship. The bills almost always are killed, but this year a proposal to increase the GPA standards for the additional stipends for the highest achievers was passed.

TOPS requires a 20 on the ACT and a 2.5 GPA in the core curriculum to qualify for the full instate tuition coverage scholarship. But some have argued that the criteria is low enough that the scholarship is not truly “merit-based.”

Wharton noted that the 2.5 GPA eligibility applies only for the TOPS-mandated core curriculum. So students have to take specific college-preparatory classes, which include math, science, foreign language and fine arts, to even be considered for TOPS.

He noted that last year there were 133,000 high school students taking the TOPS core curriculum, and 71 percent will complete it.

“That doesn’t mean that they’re all going to be TOPS eligible, but all of them are better off for having done it,” he said, adding that those students would be better prepared for whatever path they took, including vocational school or community colleges.

He noted that when he was LSU’s chancellor there were hundreds of sections of remedial courses being taught. But because of the increased high school preparation prompted by TOPS, Wharton said there are no remedial classes being taught at LSU today. Instead, more students are coming to school with college credits.

Wharton said Louisiana’s economy benefits from more college graduates, and pointed out that people with baccalaureate degrees tend to earn over their life times twice as much as people with just high school degrees.

“The fact is that the state is going to get 63 dollars of revenue for every dollar they spend on TOPS for people getting their degrees,” Wharton said.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.