Guest column from Dillard president Walter Kimbrough: TOPS more an engine of inequality than opportunity, should have income-level cap _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Students from Ascension Christian High Gonzales' School, clockwise from left, Amanda Swanson, Kenedi Falgoust, Austin Kinler, Brennan Normand and Micah Jacobs, all 17, fill out entries for a $1,000 Louisiana Education Loan Authority (LELA) scholarship award, just for attending the National College Fair, a program offered by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Wednesday at the River Center. LELA administrative assistant Kayla Thomas is at right, seated. Catholic High School's Jennifer Thibodeaux, chairperson of the local event, said that nearly 100 colleges, universities and related support groups were on hand to give information and guidance to approximately 4,000 high school seniors, most from the Greater Baton Rouge area, but some from other areas of the state and Mississippi. Workshops on TOPS and financial aid, ACT/SAT strategies, choosing a college major and NCAA compliance were held in the morning and evening.

The Louisiana Board of Regents recently released a report analyzing the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students from 2003 to 2014. The program, initiated in 1998, had four major objectives. They include promoting success and providing financial incentives. But a key point is to “promote access and success” in postsecondary education. Sadly, TOPS is more of an engine of inequality than it is of opportunity.

The report analyzes recipients based on a range of demographic factors. The most telling demographic factor impacting TOPS is family income. Most recipients come from families whose household incomes are “significantly higher” than the state median average. The state median average is listed at about $44,000, while the incomes of most recipients range from $70,000 to $100,000.

This is the most important fact of the report because it proves that TOPS rewards students based on the family they were born into rather than the need for an opportunity to attend college. I can’t fathom why we refuse to acknowledge decades of data proving standardized test scores are best correlated by family income.

In July, the ACT released its latest report on college readiness and low-income families. When examining college readiness as measured by ACT scores, in each of the four categories (English, reading, math and science), low-income students, defined by ACT as those from families earning less than $36,000 a year, scored 17 to 20 points below the all-student average in each area. Only 26 percent of all takers were deemed college-ready by ACT, a figure that drops to 11 percent for low-income students.

The report further disaggregated the data by income levels. Sixty-two percent of students from $100,000-plus families and 48 percent of students from $60,000 to $100,000 (the TOPS profile) met three of the four benchmarks for college readiness. The low-income students? Only 20 percent met that level of performance.

The report also shows that high-income students take core curriculum classes at a greater rate than low-income students, and that 41 percent of low-income students are not enrolled in any higher education right after college, versus only 16 percent of high-income students. (Hint: They don’t have any money to go, so a grant would help!)

In short, TOPS is structured to give money to top students, from top-income families, who attend top schools with top curriculums. The state has spent almost $2 billion on a program that exacerbates income inequality and limits financial assistance to those who need it the most. I know lawmakers say they don’t want high numbers of students to lose the grant, so they’ve rigged the system to give the money to those most likely to succeed.

But if we are trying to improve opportunity, it means helping students who cannot go to college without additional financial support. If we are honest, most TOPS recipients come from families that will pay for them to go to college, with or without this grant. TOPS essentially serves as a tax break couched as a reward for academic rigor and success.

By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education, so we need more people to complete some form of higher education. Every year, students drop out due to lack of money, sometimes as little as a few hundred dollars. Making TOPS accessible to these students would have a greater impact on the state, and that way, we all are better.

The solution is simple: Cap the income level of families that are eligible for TOPS ($60,000), lower the ACT score and raise the grade-point average. This will provide more opportunity to low-income students who come from weaker schools and fragile families. Yes, more will lose the grant, but given the “opportunity,” they may work harder to regain the grant or even persist in school without the funding. In addition, some of the funds should be directed to ensure that all schools have high-quality teachers, providing financial incentives to those teaching in the toughest situations.

I know. I am asking the Louisiana Legislature to create rules that are against the self-interests of its members. Because they earn $32,000 to $66,000 annually, for a part-time job, this essentially ensures that their kids will be TOPS-eligible. But if you are truly a servant of the people, people whose median family income is basically less than your part-time job, the only moral act is to make TOPS an opportunity for those with the most need, not another perk for the privileged.

If not, change the name from TOPS to TIPS, because the only outcome from this opportunity is inequality.

Walter Kimbrough is president of Dillard University in New Orleans.