More than 223,000 Louisiana students have graduated with the help of TOPS, which awards funds based on high school GPA and ACT scores. In addition to providing lower-income students with the opportunity to attend college, TOPS is one of the biggest incentives for keeping Louisiana’s best and brightest students in-state.

My high school was less than 10 minutes away from LSU, and my academic advisers started stressing the importance of TOPS the minute my wide-eyed, nervous 12th-grade class walked in the door. Three years ago, when I began my college search, I wanted to leave Louisiana for college, and I treated the idea of going to an in-state school as a last resort. But TOPS, combined with LSU’s program for my major (political communication), was an offer my family and I couldn’t refuse.

I love my university now and can’t imagine earning my undergraduate degree anywhere else. But if it hadn’t been for TOPS, I might not have even applied to LSU. For me, TOPS was the make-or-break factor in keeping me in Louisiana. However, it’s complicated.

Louisiana has encountered its worst budget shortfalls in recent history. As a result, higher education funding has been cut multiple times since 2008. At the same time, however, lawmakers still try to fund TOPS year after year. While TOPS usually maintains its funding, fees, which are not covered under the scholarship, keep going up to make up for the cuts. The state’s budget shortfall was so bad in 2016 that for the first time, legislators were forced to cut TOPS funding, which left many families scrambling, until it was reinstated.

Free tuition does not equal free college. Like other scholarships, TOPS only covers tuition; students and their families are still on the hook for fees, room and board, books and other expenses. Even with the highest level of TOPS (tuition and an annual $800 stipend) and two other scholarships, my fee bill still has leftover expenses every semester that my family must pay.

But, TOPS isn’t just a tuition program. TOPS is a tool for cultivating Louisiana’s best and brightest at its colleges and universities. Keeping Louisiana students in-state for college is in everyone’s best interest. When more students are able to stay here for college, they give back to Louisiana in countless ways. TOPS goes hand-in-hand with college for Louisiana students, and the program is just as dear to me as Saturdays in Death Valley and the campus’s stately oaks and broad magnolias.

Beth Carter

LSU junior

Baton Rouge