Our lawmakers frequently tell us that the cost of TOPS is increasing so fast that the program cannot be sustained. They don’t tell us that 100 percent of TOPS funding goes from the state general fund, the tobacco trust fund and the tobacco settlement revenues into institutional budgets.

In short, TOPS is a modest component of funding for higher education. If funding for TOPS can’t be sustained, then funding for postsecondary education can’t be sustained. Let’s examine the changes in higher education that have been brought about by TOPS and then ask if the program is worth the cost to tax payers.

In 1967 tuition at LSU was $110 per year. By 1973 it had increased to $160. The LSU Board of Supervisors made every effort to hold down the cost to students. Tuition at other public universities was even less. The state general fund was paying approximately 95 percent of the total cost of higher education.

If they had a high school diploma, every student had a scholarship to the public college of their choice. Many of our current legislators benefitted from this financial support, and no one asked questions about what the funding was producing. The problem was that very few of the entering freshman students were prepared for university study. Many hundreds of remedial classes were taught, and less than 30 percent of the students graduated. In other words, 70 percent of the funding produced no graduates.

Today, we have 30,000 out of 45,000 total high school graduates each year completing a rigorous college preparatory curriculum in their effort to earn a TOPS award. All benefit from this effort, and 18,000 earn the grades and test scores required to receive a TOPS award. About 14,000 of these TOPS students enter Louisiana institutions each year. These students have essentially eliminated remedial courses and dramatically increased graduation rates.

Using LSU as an example, in 1981 sections of remedial courses numbered in the hundreds and the graduation rate was 31 percent. For the 2006 entering freshman students, there were no remedial sections, and the graduation rate was 70 percent from LSU with another 13 percent transferring to and graduating from other Louisiana universities that have allied health degree programs. The total graduation rate was more than 83 percent, because one can’t track women whose name changes as a result of marriage. These positive results are also obtained for TOPS students who attend other Louisiana universities.

Student preparation as a result of TOPS has led to much more efficient and effective universities. We can either spend 1.1 percent of the state budget to sustain the gains made as a result of TOPS or go back to unprepared students and the associated inefficient universities.

James Wharton

chancellor emeritus, LSU

Baton Rouge