SADOW: Is It Really Possible We Could Have TOPS Reform This Year?

While on this issue reformers have lost and lost again, there’s a glimmer of hope for some minor modification of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars in this legislative session – and the promise of potentially getting better bang for the buck for Louisiana’s taxpayers.

But the redistributive, giveaway mentality still infesting too many policy-makers makes it just a glimmer.

Last week, , a pair of state Sen. Jack Donahue’s bills on these matters cleared the Senate Education Committee run by fellow reformer state Sen. Conrad Appel and comprised almost entirely of Republicans and reform-minded senators. SB 340 would freeze TOPS awards at current levels, then index them at the rate of inflation. SB 343 would forward a constitutional amendment stripping the Legislature of approving tuition rates. TOPS currently pays for tuition or more for mediocre-and-better mostly in-state high school students to attend in-state colleges and universities at a level that pays for tuition for public schools regardless of that rate, an amount over which currently the Legislature has veto power (which it legally declines to exercise if the campuses hit certain performance benchmarks).

With roughly a fifth of all students qualifying for TOPS, for which they must hit certain minimal performance benchmarks annually to maintain and but only about two-thirds do, programmatic costs have spiraled upwards into the $250 million annual range. A recent constitutional change has made a small dent in this cost by supplying interest earnings from a fund, but the remainder comes from general funds tax revenues. In part, this is why the Legislature has been reluctant to release its power, unique among the states, of approval of tuition hikes by a two-thirds vote, fearing spiraling tuition costs would inflate TOPS costs even more.

But also part of this reticence has come from pure populist politics. Legislators can hold themselves out as protectors of the family paying for higher education, which has led to a situation where Louisiana enjoys among the lowest tuition levels in the country even though its populace has more than enough wherewithal to afford it, even as it spends disproportionately more per capita on higher education because of an overbuilt system needing pruning for efficiency’s sake. It’s a recipe for waste that these bills can begin to fix.

In a sense, these bills work in tandem. By letting institutions set their own rates, levels can be set by those delivering higher education to fit better strengths and needs, and can be used as a tool to improve outcomes by both discouraging weaker students for that institution and incentivizing others to improve their work rate and thus performances with a more finite scholarship. By indexing TOPS awards, this creates an anchor of sorts for institutions to act temperately in their tuition increases to achieve these means if and when they occur, for qualifying students would have to pay more on their own (for most awards made they already pay the fees). In the end, under these changes taxpayers win because a higher proportion of students would graduate with skills better aligned to real-world opportunities using fewer tax revenues and the market can impose discipline on tuition rates with less politics than the Legislature.

Yet another Donahue proposal that would serve as an even farther-reaching reform remains stalled, and the source of its opposition exemplifies why any of these changes still remain less than likely to find passage into law or onto a ballot. His SB 520 would elevate TOPS qualifying requirements, which currently for baccalaureate study ask for a 2.5 grade point average (which the large majority of Louisiana high school students would appear to achieve in this era of grade inflation) and a 20 on the American College Test (below the national average of 20.9 but above the state average of 19.5). Donahue asks to hike these charitable requirements to a GPA of 2.75 and ACT score of 21. This would pare the weakest students, whose performances in university eventually disproportionately disqualify them from TOPS if not cause them to flunk out, where taxpayer funding for many then largely gets wasted through failure to complete a degree program.

A similar measure, HB 1153 by state Rep. Joe Harrisonmet its demise at the hand of the House Education committee the day before and shows the perils ahead for the less radical SB 520, (Harrison’s bill wanted a GPA standard of 3.0 and ACT score of 22). It got voted down there because of complaints that as minority students disproportionately comprise the lower qualifiers, thereby they disproportionately would lose out under this change. The bill also would have had freshmen pick up a fifth of tuition and sophomore a tenth of it, on the expectation that they should prove their mettle for university work prior to the state going all in.

Backers of the program did not express opposition to these alterations unambiguously. They said it would exclude too many minority students and that it turned away the program from being an entitlement of minimal qualifications. In other words, rather than as an instrument to reward quality, they indicated it was a device to funnel benefits to a segment of the population they believed deserved to have them because of its station in life.

Obviously, this view distills TOPS into nothing more than a diluted welfare program that emphasizes redistributive benefits instead of recognizing quality scholastic achievement that should award personal benefits for good students and societal benefits for taxpayers. It’s nothing more than the old populist formula strewn through Louisiana’s political culture – take from those who have and give to those who don’t regardless of the intent of and worth of the efforts of the recipients, or whether it provides a good return for society as a whole – in order to claim something is being “done” for them who, by the way, also can vote.

It’s precisely this mentality that continues to doom any transformation of, specifically, TOPS and, generally, higher education that results in best value and highest use of taxpayer resources. SB 520 hopes to avoid this ideological roadblock by a buyoff of dedicating a quarter of realized savings from 8,000 fewer participants worth $27 million to GO Grants, which are need-based and go to students that can get admitted to a Louisiana college or university.

But it should be clear that, if the goal is to produce the most payoff for taxpayer investment in subsidizing those with potential for superior performance in college, any increases to GO Grants do not serve those purposes. This year, over $26 million in increments of $300-$3,000 were allocated – and for the first time, those awarded TOPS also could get this (keep in mind that GO Grants close to the maximum would cover tuition for baccalaureate study at some schools as well). By definition, for many TOPS would obviate the need for a GO Grant.

So it really comes down to this: does Louisiana see money spent on TOPS as an ever-growing entitlement with quasi-welfare functions, or as a strategic tool to reward true scholarly achievement, to build a more qualified workforce, and/or as a means to entice potential better informers to study, and then perhaps work, in state? It’s a question those who oppose bills like Donahue’s will try to deflect. This perhaps even emanates from the Governor’s Mansion as Gov. Bobby Jindal has stated often he likes the program as is. Revelation of the answer from policy-makers begins this week in the committee and whether these bills make it to the Senate floor.

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