Photograph

Advocate Staff Photo by Travis Spradling. DIT Picture shot on 11-8-01 Patrick Taylor, CEO of Taylor Energy Corporation, at unveiling of life-sized bronze statue of Louisiana war hero Lt. Gen. John A. LeJeune, at the USS KIDD Memorial. Taylor was instrumental in getting the statue made and placed. LeJeune served with distinction for more than 40 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Travis Spradling

A gaggle of legislators pondering the future of TOPS, the program that puts kids through college on the taxpayer dollar, has been reminded that it never was “intended for the best and brightest.”

Right. We cannot allow elitism to infect Louisiana's institutions of higher learning.

TOPS helps in that regard by picking up the tab not only for the scholarly but for a steady stream of dropouts. It makes no difference if their parents are rich or poor. We'll pay everyone's tuition, and nothing owed if you flunk. We couldn't be any more generous even if the state were flush.

This year TOPS will cost us $300 million. No wonder the legislative panel has been set up to explore ways of ensuring its “long-term viability.”

TOPS, which stands for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is a sacred cow. Just about every possible refinement has been proposed and rejected at some stage over the years, while Pat Taylor, the late billionaire oilman who started it all, is viewed as more or less a saint.

It was in 1988 that Taylor gave a speech at a New Orleans middle school where kids did not see a future in the groves of academe. In fact, since their parents could not afford to send them to college, many did not even aspire to high school.

Maintain a B average and stay out of trouble, and I'll pay your way through college, Taylor declared, and for many of them it came to pass. In due course, the state adopted the idea, picking up the tab for Louisiana students to attend Louisiana colleges.

The beneficiaries of Taylor's largesse may have been hard up, but the state decided against means-testing for TOPS. The notion arose that it was time the government, instead of reserving hand-outs for people who needed them, should give the middle class a look-in. This lent a certain circularity to the whole TOPS arrangement, with taxpayers subsidizing themselves, and it always seemed absurd for the offspring of the wealthy to receive TOPS grants. But a tuition-free college education has more or less become a birthright.

Last year, in the midst of yet another financial crisis, TOPS only paid 70 percent of tuition. But the state found enough money to fund it fully this year. Until now TOPS grants have risen in line with tuition, but are now frozen at 2016 levels. Otherwise, the cost of TOPS has ballooned, causing the 10-member legislative panel to come up with suggestions for reform that will, if history is any guide, be quietly forgotten.

The reminder that TOPS was not conceived for the “best and brightest” came from James Caillier, director of the foundation established by Taylor and his wife. Caillier also noted that the program was originally restricted to students who couldn't have made it to college without financial aid. Once the state adopted the program, we were introduced to the concept of a universal entitlement; it is impossible to be too rich for TOPS.

If students do not have to be poor, they are not required to demonstrate much academic aptitude either. A 3.5 GPA, and an ACT score of 20 is enough to qualify for TOPS in Louisiana, as it has been from the beginning.

Other states that have adopted similar programs have imposed somewhat more exacting standards; With the bar set so low in Louisiana, more than 50,000 students are year get a free ride thanks to TOPS. It is among government's greatest extravagances.

Once these students graduate, they are perfectly free to seek employment out of state, so, as an investment in Louisiana's future, TOPS hardly represents value for money. But upping the academic ante, or kicking the well-heeled off the program, would require so much political courage as to be foolhardy.

That's why the “long-term viability” of TOPS is guaranteed. It is too popular for meaningful reform. Besides, everyone's in favor of improving educational standards, and TOPS is generally allowed to have contributed to that goal, albeit not in a particularly cost-effective fashion.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.