Louisiana State Capitol _lowres

ADVOCATE FILE PHOTO --- Louisiana's State Capitol, standing at 450 feet tall, is the tallest capitol in the United States.

Louisiana's governor and Legislature can put the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students on firm financial footing — but only by ignoring the politics that have thwarted previous efforts to control its spending.

This week brings the first meeting of a legislative task force to sort out TOPS’ ballooning cost, which now approaches $300 million annually. The panel is supposed to find ways to stabilize the program that pays for some or all tuition, and in some cases a bit more, for Louisiana's recent high school graduates to attend a state college or university.

As TOPS spending continued to escalate, a couple of bills passed in the last two years tepidly altered its obligations. Lawmakers capped the amount paid at the cost of last academic year’s tuition. The legislation requires lawmakers to OK any future increases in that amount. The modest reforms came after a budget crisis prompted legislators to only partially fund TOPS, although this year, full funding was restored. 

While capping the payout helps a little with cost control, it does nothing to reduce the inefficiency plaguing the program as a whole. About a third of students that graduated from high school five years ago eventually lost their TOPS eligibility, with no obligation to pay back what they'd already received from the program.

In part, this occurs because TOPS is neither fish nor fowl. Its low standardized test qualification — scoring 20 on the American College Test, below the national average — allows marginal students a heavily discounted ride (TOPS does not pay for fees) at most state baccalaureate institutions. Almost a quarter prove incapable of maintaining an undemanding 2.5 grade-point average or a full-time load (12 semester hours) to keep the award, surely in some instances because recipients don’t know what they want to do in life and went to college only because taxpayers promised to foot their tuition while they “found” themselves.

While not a scholarship, neither is TOPS progressive. It has no need-based component to it, so wealthy families’ young adults earn the same level of assistance as those below the poverty line. In fact, over two-thirds of awardees come from families with incomes above Louisiana’s median family income. This makes it an inefficient entitlement, awarding lower achievers along with those who demonstrate much more merit and providing financial aid to struggling households along with those who earn tens and even hundreds of times more.

But opposition to TOPS reform remains high. One constituency argues that the low standards can help students from disadvantaged environments while another says students meeting the meager standards should get a benefit regardless of financial situation. These views have influenced a large spectrum of politicians to tinker only at TOPS’ margins.

Changing TOPS into a genuine scholarship program while boosting needs-based assistance through needs-based awards called GO Grants can make both more effective. Raising the ACT requirement to 24, which encompasses the upper quarter of test takers nationally, rewards excellence, encourages greater effort in high school, and weeds out dilettantes while cutting TOPS’ cost almost in half. Then tripling current GO Grant funding and doubling its maximum allotment to $6,000 annually would save the state nearly $100 million a year while helping out more deserving students from less-wealthy backgrounds.

These changes may spark some middle-class families and above to bemoan paying tuition and others with lower incomes to complain they end up paying more for college. But legislators and the governor must break with their past to better serve students — as well as taxpayers helping to support high education.

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, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in 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.