SADOW: You Can’t Make TOPS Work Unless It’s Merit-Based

One comment to a legislative committee put into a nutshell the reason why Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars has become a costly public policy issue and why it must be reformed if any coherence is to come to larger policy regarding higher education funding.

Last week, the House Education Committee vetted several bills relating to the program, which pays for tuition at state colleges or universities or its equivalent at private schools and in some instances a little more. While they varied in approach, all had the effect of reducing its cost to the state, which is forecast to hit the $370 million annual level within a few years.

In the process of taking testimony, the committee heard from James Caillier, representing the Patrick Taylor Foundation. Taylor initiated the program privately over two decades ago, promising a group of students disproportionately from low income families that if they did sufficiently well in their studies, he would foot their college tuition costs. Caillier, responding to the plethora of bills that raised qualification standards and/or would have winners take on the initial costs of their education, decried the bills with “What are they trying to do? Make it a program for the rich?”

And there’s the confusion, both on the part of its speaker and the program, writ large. When it began, the state did not place any means test on receiving an award but used language indicating these were to be awarded on the basis of merit. Except that the merit standards utilized lacked any real merit to them. Today, all one must do to qualify at the baccalaureate level if from a Louisiana high school is to exceed slightly the admission standards to the state’s lowest tier (“regional”) universities (and when TOPS began, when these schools basically had no admission standards, all that was required on the American College Test was a score of 19, that with 8 as the minimum and 36 as the maximum meant a score over two-thirds of all takers met or surpassed), and to qualify for two-year colleges’ tuition a student can have significantly lower standardized test scores and some fewer core class credits.

In other words, such low standards made this more of an entitlement than a true scholarship award. But to launch a program that then would cost tens of millions of dollars a year that would have been designed only to pay tuition of low-income students was impossible politically. Rightfully so, families whose children met these standards but who would have to pay tuition even though they had made the decisions and done the things to put their families in position to acquire greater wealth would have felt cheated at being penalized for their success. So policy-makers created an entitlement disguised as a scholarship program.

Some have chafed at this ever since, whose proposals to reform TOPS would entail placing income limits to make this a means-tested welfare program. Caillier’s remark has its genesis with this sentiment, but also includes the odious idea that income predetermines academic success. It fails to understand that income and academic success at best are indirectly related, because both are directly related to cultural attitudes as first identified by Edward Banfield. Simply, people with an orientation to present consumption were far more likely to be poor than those oriented towards future goals, because the latter delayed immediate gratification in favor of pursuing behaviors (including working for academic success) that would secure higher incomes. Generally but not always, the poor don’t succeed academically not because they lack resources, but because the same set of attitudes that caused their lack of resources also discourages their academic attainment.

By raising TOPS standards, this finally makes it more into a genuine scholarship program that should become much more efficient in its use of funds, being as many as half of those who qualify and use it eventually lose it and these disproportionately are qualifiers closer to the standards’ cutoff point. But this would have it lose the entitlement status that makes it another bauble politicians can throw to constituents to gain their votes and removes students from an overbuilt Louisiana higher education system that because of its surplus capacity already faces fiscal burdens (even as this would encourage more high school students and families to work harder and increase their educational attainment to meet these higher standards).

For these reasons, this reform has been a hard sell, with even Gov.Bobby Jindal expressing reluctance to allow changing standards. Yet the reason its costs have ballooned and it works so inefficiently precisely is because of its muddled nature. Only by resolving that – making it a true scholarship program or a means-tested welfare program – can it gain the coherence necessary to work well. The latter option seems more appropriately handled through the state’s cash gift to college students, the GO Grants program, so unless TOPS reform emphasizes increasing standards and asks students to take on a greater stake in earning this gift of higher education, the muddled mess that currently exists will continue to underperform wastefully.

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