While the 2014 Louisiana Legislative session has come and gone, state lawmakers spend a good bit of time throughout the balance of every year in Baton Rouge working on legislative issues.
Perhaps one of those issues will involve measures to very modestly adjust the eligibility standards for the state’s very popular college tuition program scholarship award. Initiated in 1989, the scholarship plan has undergone a couple of name changes from the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) to, in 2008, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) for Patrick F. Taylor – original initiator of the state’s first merit-based college tuition program.
Notably, TOPS is one of the most generous state-funded scholarship programs in the country – and one Louisiana parents and students strongly favor, and for good reason.
Basic requirements for a TOPS award require a 2.5 grade point average and a minimum ACT score of 20. The award pays college tuition at any state school regardless of financial need. Some fees may also be paid for students who meet certain other academic requirements.
Nearly 50,000 students currently receive TOPS funding – over 600,000 students have benefited from the program since its inception.
And that costs money – and lots of it.
A 2011 Baton Rouge Advocate report noted that the program’s costs have risen from about $780,000 in 1989 to $168 million in 2011, and that the state’s House Fiscal Division projected that cost to increase to $340 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year. More recent projections anticipate the cost to be $250 million in the next budget year and an estimated $387 million by 2019.
Part of the rapid escalation in the program’s cost is related to the rapid rise in college tuition in Louisiana as lawmakers and Gov. Jindal have slashed upwards of $650 million funding to the state’s higher education institutions. That fiscal double-edged sword, along with the growing number of students taking advantage of free college tuition creates a circumstance that lawmakers have already recognized: $387 million in 2019 is a sum the state can’t afford.
Over the last few years, lawmakers have attempted to tweak the program’s eligibility standards, but with no success. And the past legislative session wasn’t any more productive on that front. Senate Bill 520 aimed to increase the required high school grade point average from 2.5 to 2.75, and the ACT score from 20 to 21 for students graduating in 2017-18. The proposal failed on a 23-16 vote. Others proposals didn’t make it beyond committee discussion.
Current eligibility standards do not require much scholarship on the part of high school students. Increasing those standards as modestly as what was proposed would invite more scholastic diligence and perhaps stronger preparation for the rigor of college coursework. Likely, such a measure would also briefly reduce the number of free-tuition seeking students resulting in a reduction of program costs.
Increasing students’ college readiness might also reduce the number of those who drop out in the first year of school. A Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office report found that 44 percent of students lost their awards between 2002 and 2008 – most during the first year of college.
To date, lawmakers seem more concerned for their popularity at home than explaining the hard truths to constituents about the state’s TOPS funding limitations. If this problem persists, the choice for lawmakers will probably be made for them in a few short years – but something must change if TOPS is to continue. Better to carefully choose that change than endure the forced unfortunate alternative.
Marty Carlson is a columnist for the Bossier Press-Tribune. She may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org