Then There’s Melinda Deslatte’s Irritating TOPS Article…

You might have seen this yesterday – it’s the AP story by Melinda Deslatte about a report commissioned by the state legislature on the Taylor Opportunity Scholarship Program, or TOPS, that provides free scholarship cash to prospective college students based on a set of quite modest academic benchmarks in Louisiana’s high schools.

And shockingly, the recipients of TOPS dollars are usually white and affluent…

The report shows that between 2003 and 2014, 79 percent of the TOPS recipients were white and 58 percent were female.

The average household income for students who received the free college aid during the same time period ranged from $70,000 to $99,000 – far above Louisiana’s median household income of $44,164.

Lawmakers also asked for more details about students that fail to keep their TOPS awards because they don’t maintain the required course load and grade point average.

According to the data, TOPS students graduate at higher rates than those who attend Louisiana colleges without the award. One-third of students who received free tuition since 2003 lost the aid because they didn’t maintain the minimum academic criteria required.

So now we’re going to have a lot of preening about how TOPS is middle-class welfare and how it’s a racist program which doesn’t do enough to help black kids in the state.

All of which is crap. TOPS wasn’t designed to be a welfare program. TOPS was designed to be an achievement-based scholarship program that allows students to earn their way into an affordable college tuition.

And therefore it shouldn’t be even remotely surprising that the best achievers who are most successful in earning TOPS scholarships come from families with the means to create achievement among their children. Of course kids from Newman, Sacred Heart, St. Thomas More and Evangel are going to pick up more TOPS dollars than kids from McCall, Glen Oaks, H.L. Bourgeois  and Washington-Marion. That’s why you make the investment in tuition for your kid at  Newman, Sacred Heart, St. Thomas More and Evangel.

What’s coming from this is a call to restructure TOPS awards. And a restructuring is not a terrible idea. TOPS is beginning to cost more money than expected, which raises the prospect of legislators having to vote to cut the program – in an election year.

TOPS is about to present a major dilemma to those legislators, though. The reason it’s starting to cost too much is that it’s too easy to qualify for a TOPS ride. With a 2.5 GPA in high school and a 20 on the ACT, you qualify for the program.

So if you want to dial down the expenses, the easy way to do so is to raise the requirements. To 2.8 and 24, for example. But if you do that, the recipients of TOPS scholarships are going to be even more white and affluent (or black and affluent, for that matter), because kids who come from households which better prepare them for academic success (both because there’s money and because Mom and Dad have good educations) are going to get better grades. And since this politics, everything which produces a result that doesn’t redistribute resources from the “rich” to the “poor” is inherently racist or oligarchic or whatever.

Meaning you don’t want to raise the requirements, unless you’re going to do set-asides for poor or black kids or make at least some of the program need-based. Never mind that we already have a lot of need-based college aid programs and this was never intended to be one of those; you’re going to hear that siren song before too long.

It ought to be remembered that TOPS wasn’t intended to send more underprivileged kids to college. TOPS was intended to stop the “brain drain” of Louisiana’s better high school students to out-of-state colleges, when once they decamped elsewhere they seldom returned to the state. It was intended to incentivize the smart kids in Louisiana to go to LSU instead of Ole Miss or Auburn or Washington & Lee, because it made so much sense to stay home when TOPS was paying for a full ride.

And it’s been successful in that regard. It used to be that almost nobody at a Newman or Sacred Heart would go to LSU for college; now, that’s relatively routine. And while you still have the problem of LSU graduates ending up somewhere like Houston, meaning Louisiana has made this tremendous investment in educating Texas’ workforce, it’s not quite as bad as losing all the best high school kids.

You can make the argument that accomplishing this goal costs too much, but nobody is interested in killing TOPS.

The other dynamic is that the Jindal administration has gotten away from dumping money on Louisiana’s public colleges through the general fund, and shifting the funding mechanism more toward a tuition-based model. Which is generally good policy, because it allows for the market, rather than budget politics, to decide which colleges thrive and which ones don’t, and also because we’ve proven for decades that it’s a lousy idea to depend on the legislature to feed higher education.

But the higher the tuition gets, the more money you’ll have to spend on fulfilling the TOPS guarantee of paying tuition at Louisiana’s colleges. You’re not actually saving any money moving higher ed funding out of the general fund, you’re just shifting the burden to TOPS (and in a small amount to out-of-state students at an LSU or Louisiana Tech, for example). The model might be better, but it creates its own problems.

And one of those problems is that you’re going to hear politicians decry TOPS as a giveaway for the rich rather than the attempt at drying up the brain drain it’s always been. The minute TOPS turns into a true redistributive welfare program its purpose will be lost.

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