Some Thoughts On TOPS…

…since John Bel Edwards is obviously aiming to drain it of as much money as he can, or if not quite that then certainly to use TOPS as a lever to force the legislature to accede to his demands for yet another tax-raising special session after the current one is over.

There was this yesterday…

“You are not going to see a proposal from us next Tuesday to fully fund TOPS,” Edwards said in a press conference Thursday. “If we raise more revenue, I would love to fully fund TOPS.”

The administration is expected to reveal the governor’s budget proposal for the next fiscal cycle on Tuesday. Louisiana is facing a $750 million shortfall in its spending plan that begins July 1. In addition to TOPS, hospitals that serve the poor and uninsured are expected to take a spending cut.

The TOPS program would require $300 million to fully fund. Only $60 million of that allocation has been secured so far. But the entire discussion of TOPS funding is not likely to resolved until this summer, when a special session to raise more taxes might be held.

Edwards said his administration would be proposing to fund TOPS beyond the $60 million currently allocated, but he declined to say how much more would be provided.

Here’s something else from Julia O’Donoghue’s article which is emblematic of the unbelievably stupid narrative on TOPS and higher education that somehow pervades our state and informs public policy…

The cost of TOPS has skyrocketed since the modern version of the scholarship was first implemented in 1998. The initial cost of TOPS was just over $50 million 18 years ago. Now the program is expected to cost $316 million by 2021, unless something is done to curb costs.

Right. And at the same time, what’s the number we constantly hear about funding for higher education over the last eight years since Louisiana had a $29 billion budget? A 70 percent cut?

TOPS has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. During Bobby Jindal’s time as Louisiana’s governor, in which higher education was supposedly “gutted,” TOPS costs have “run out of control.”

TOPS funds Louisiana’s public colleges, in case you’re not getting this. It’s a public scholarship program which pays tuition at the state’s colleges.

And cutting TOPS is cutting higher education. Money flowing to LSU, let’s say, through TOPS is money that funds LSU. The only difference between TOPS and direct appropriations from the general fund is LSU has to “earn” TOPS by attracting students with credentials strong enough to merit its scholarships. LSU has to get that money through the marketplace rather than showing up at the legislature hat in hand begging for it.

This is a relatively simple concept, but somehow it is completely missed. Part of the blame should go to the Jindal administration for not openly explaining that yes, they wanted to change the higher education funding model away from the top-down, formula-driven systematic practice driven by politicians and bureaucrats to something driven by the market. That really should have been done, even if there would have been the same kinds of pushback a voucher system (which is what a TOPS-driven college funding model is similar to) generates in K-12 education; the problem with quietly doing it the way Jindal did is rather than having a debate about market-based education you just allow an inaccurate narrative to the extent that he’s “gutting” LSU.

LSU’s funding this year is larger than it’s ever been, by the way. Its general fund appropriation isn’t what it was in 2008, but the university overall budget dwarfs what it was in those golden days. Why? Because it collects more tuition and fees than ever before, and the in-state tuition is mostly paid for by TOPS. LSU’s admissions standards are higher than TOPS’ admissions standards are, so if you’re at LSU and you’re not on TOPS it’s probably because you had it and lost it by not keeping your GPA up.

So cutting TOPS will limit the number of students LSU wants but can’t sell an education to because they can’t afford it. Or it’s a major price increase on LSU’s students. Or it’s a cap on in-state students at LSU, because without TOPS paying the freight enrollment for in-state kids will drop and the university will make up the difference by taking more out-of-state students. That’s something LSU ought to be doing anyway; if LSU needs money then taking out-of-state paying customers is a great way to use cash cows to bolster its business model. For a truly healthy LSU, though, the university ought to be doing that while holding on to the in-state students and growing as a school; this cut will put a damper on that in a major way.

But the narrative is so thick that even Rep. Steve Carter, who is a former tennis coach at LSU and in his previous term chaired the House Education Committee, was on the radio in Baton Rouge yesterday talking about how TOPS is out of control and the state has to roll it back because we can’t afford it. Carter shepherded the Jindal education reforms through the House in 2012; you’d think he would recognize a school choice plan when he saw one, but nope.

Somehow, they’ve managed to present a scholarship program which was created in large measure to incentivize the state’s best high school seniors to stay in Louisiana rather than heading off to Texas or Florida or Georgia or elsewhere for college, never to be seen again, as some sort of needless middle-class welfare program. TOPS has played a major role in slowing down the outmigration problem Louisiana has, and it’s a strategic benefit to the state’s economy. What’s more, even the “bloated” $300 million figure is barely one percent of Louisiana’s budget; it’s not like slashing TOPS in half is somehow going to solve any problems.

At the end of the day, though, while we need a far better public understanding that TOPS funding is higher education funding the real story behind Edwards’ attacks on the program is pure politics. He knows that most parents of TOPS kids are middle class folks who either paid extra for a house in a good school district or sent their kids to private school, and by and large vote Republican, and by going after TOPS he thinks he can soften their opposition to tax increases.

It’s thuggery, but he thinks it works. And he’ll be right if Republicans in the Legislature don’t stand up to him and force cuts elsewhere – to the extent that Louisiana’s deficit is even what Edwards claims it is after the unknown amount of tax increases they’ve already given him plays out in real life.

UPDATE: Then there was the op-ed in the Advocate by James Wharton, the former LSU chancellor, who says if the legislature will just arbitrarily cut tuition at Louisiana’s universities by 10 percent, that would save TOPS $30 million and the state could just plow those savings back into higher education funding.

Seriously, that’s Wharton’s solution.

Those savings could and should be appropriated back to the universities in accordance with the formula. The state would look better nationally in terms of state appropriations for higher education. Several of the universities would come out ahead. TOPS students wouldn’t care. Non-TOPS students and graduate students would love it. The larger universities would lose some funds, but the shift away from LSU, University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Louisiana Tech already is taking place.

The insistence by university officials past and present on being dependent on the legislature for a check every year is as inexplicable as it is unmistakable. You would think Wharton would be asking the legislature to set LSU free to price its product as the market would bear and, if that would make TOPS too expensive, then to make TOPS a set amount decoupled from university tuition levels, which for all of F. King Alexander’s multiple policy sins he’s at least asked for, but instead he’s trying to drag Louisiana back to the stupid old ways where LSU’s fate rises and falls with the price of oil and what it does to the state’s budget.

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