Down to the wire on the Louisiana budget — and the Louisiana Department of Health is in the crosshairs_lowres

State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, proposed the House budget that would cut health programs and TOPS funding.

Making policy based on the exception rather than the rule isn’t wise. Yet that’s what happened in recent budget debates over funding Taylor Opportunity Program for Students tuition awards.

In the debate about at how much of an expiring sales tax should be retained — if it should be kept at all — elected officials often held out TOPS as a reason to preserve the tax at the higher level. For most recipients, TOPS pays almost all of the state college tuition for a full-time Louisiana student who achieves at least a 2.5-grade point average in high school and a slightly below-average score on standardized tests. Those who do better can earn a bit extra.

Through traditional and social media, stories spread about students saying they would choose out-of-state higher education institutions if TOPS didn’t receive full funding. And when the final deal funded TOPS at 100 percent, the reaction of Gov. John Bel Edwards illustrated typical lawmaker sentiments: “I'm sorry, Alabama, but you're not gonna be picking off our best and brightest.”

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If only that were true. Fully funding TOPS does next to nothing to prevent brain drain because the vast majority of TOPS recipients don’t represent high achievers. Suffice it to say that the relatively low TOPS standards aren't driving a race to the top. And even without TOPS, almost all Louisiana students would still find it much cheaper to attend an in-state public university than one outside Louisiana.

Take the University of Alabama, for example. The typical Louisianian attending that school would pay almost $30,000 a year in tuition and fees. At Louisiana’s most expensive public school, LSU, the same tuition would cost under $12,000. Even with TOPS just half funded, as in 2016-2017, assuming no additional scholarship money from LSU, only the top one percent of American College Test scorers in Louisiana could qualify for Crimson Tide scholarship dollars that would make education in Tuscaloosa less costly under this scenario.

But most of this small pool — fewer than 900 — would qualify for LSU scholarships that would reduce any Alabama financial advantage, if not eliminate it. In other words, a half-funded TOPS might make an out-of-state school cheaper to attend for at most a few dozen freshmen out of the nearly 20,000 eligible TOPS recipients annually.

Deciding whether to spend an extra $100 million or more on the basis of keeping a handful of graduating high school seniors in Louisiana isn’t an optimal use of taxpayer dollars. Better would be to have LSU pony up its own scholarship offerings to compete.

Except that LSU, which enrolls about a third of all TOPS recipients, lags its comparable peers considerably in academic endowment (while lapping many in athletic scholarships available). For example, using 2016 data, neighbor University of Arkansas has an endowment four times the size of the LSU System’s, while the University of Mississippi has an endowment twice as large. Even Mississippi State University has about $50 million more.

And although Texas has a population seven times that of Louisiana and its two major institutions each have twice the number of students at LSU, the Texas A&M University System has banked an endowment 22 times the LSU System’s. The University of Texas System has collected a staggering 51 times more money for its endowment than LSU. (By the way, only a quarter of TOPS recipients even could qualify for regular academic admission to TAMU, much less with any tuition assistance.)

Surely, the generosity of TOPS has made taxpayers pay too many tuition dollars and prompted higher education, especially LSU, to hustle too little to beef up academic scholarships. The myth of a student exodus without a fully funded TOPS discourages reform.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.