Rep. C. Denise Marcelle

Rep. C. Denise Marcelle

If it’s really a “scholarship,” the academic standards for Louisiana’s TOPS program are way too low.

If it’s “merit-based financial aid,” better-off families will continue to reap the vast share of the popular and generous checks given to college students who make the grades.

What the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars is: a middle- or upper-middle-class entitlement program, because families with higher incomes are typically providing the opportunity for students to learn better in elementary and high school, for which the state then writes a college check.

It is the long-existing quandary of TOPS.

A couple of legislators viewed the data during the budget discussion and questioned why TOPS checks go most often to families making $70,000 a year or higher.

State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, said TOPS was initially launched to aid students who could not afford college. "How did we get from the intent to what we have here, that it is just the opposite?" Marcelle asked.

"We have to change the trajectory at some point," she added.

Good luck with that. Like the homestead exemption, which is bad for state and local tax policy, TOPS may be flawed but it is viewed as a tax break that families are obviously reluctant to see changed.

Figures supplied to the House Appropriations Committee show that 22% of students who receive TOPS live in households with incomes of $150,000 per year and more.

Those are regular voters. If TOPS families don’t want to change things, politicians will share the same reluctance.

We have long urged that academic standards be raised for TOPS awards. But from Marcelle’s standpoint — or that, say, of the Southern University campuses, where a majority of students get college aid for lower-income families via Pell Grants — raising the test scores would on average mean even fewer recipients.

As family incomes rise, the investment in education by families tends to rise. And thus grades and test scores, meaning that the rich get richer, as the old jibe goes.

But ask many families with a couple of kids on about $70,000 a year, and they’ll tell you that they are hardly rich. TOPS not only makes it possible for their kids to get a college education, but it does impose some requirements on classes taken in high school that are likely to prepare freshmen for college work.

Not surprisingly, TOPS recipients graduate at higher rates. And while state officials advocate more income-based financial aid — called GO grants — the college completion rates are lower, even by the six-year graduation number that is now the standard.

And even with TOPS checks for the first four years, a staggering one-third of recipients don't graduate within six years.

Quandaries like this are very hard to solve politically. And if TOPS is not something-for-nothing, it’s also hardly a real scholarship program because it is so easy to get. Excellence is a hard sell when $321 million now goes out to some 60,000 students.

Our Views: With state finances is disarray, legislators avoid budget drama