TOPS Task Forced 3 020718

State Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, chaired the TOPS Task Force, which held 12 meetings since September. Morrish's plan to make the most popular form of TOPS a $4,000 per year stipends was one of nine forwarded to the full Legislature.

Advocate Photo by Mark Ballard

A generation ago, everyone knew you had to have a high school degree to get a job. The equivalent requirement for young people today is a postsecondary certificate or degree.

Four years ago, Amazon was powered by 15,000 robots; two years later that number increased to 45,000. It’s not hard to see how advances in artificial intelligence and robotics will wipe out hundreds of thousands of jobs and create new ones that demand postsecondary training — and it’s going to happen fast. With this in mind, it makes sense to invest in higher education — and support a strong student financial aid system.  

At the same time, economic shortfalls force hard decisions about how best to support postsecondary education students and their families. Governor Edwards has proposed an across-the-board cut to the TOPS financial aid program, while some legislators have proposed a prioritization that cuts grants for working class students and increases them for high achievers — many of whom are from wealthy families who don’t need the financial help to go to college.

If the governor’s budget proposal is embraced it will lead to more college dropouts, fewer students enrolled, and more students leaving the state. And the latter proposal would make Louisiana’s financial aid system — already one of the most regressive in the country — even more regressive.  

The solution lies in rejecting the false dichotomy that the state must choose between scholarship aid based exclusively on family financial need or based exclusively on student test scores and college attended. Louisiana has the opportunity to lead the country with a TOPS program that embraces a more nuanced definition of merit that considers a student’s socioeconomic starting point and rewards effort, progress, and academic results.

Education Reform Now has developed a formula that prioritizes students based on a combined assessment of academic achievement and family background. In the event of insufficient funding, it enables lawmakers to guarantee some financial aid to high achieving students at virtually all family income levels and at least some financial aid to economically disadvantaged students at all current TOPS minimum achievement levels. This kind of “extra effort” formula rewards most the students who worked hardest to travel the furthest, as opposed to those who worked least to get to the same spot.

It’s the difference between equality and equity. It’s harder to be an “A” student with a high ACT score when you’re from a low-income family than when you’re not. Lawmakers should recognize that important difference and reward that effort. Failure to do so will hurt Louisiana, and leave its citizens behind the curve as we head into a future that requires this new kind of investment to ensure successful lives for more Louisianans.

Michael Dannenberg

director, Strategic Initiatives for Policy, Education Reform Now

Washington, D.C.

Our Views: Government mismanagement of TOPS funding costs Louisiana universities top-flight students