Creating increased stability in the TOPS program that provides scholarships for Louisiana high school graduates to attend college would be a major step toward raising the state’s educational attainment level and bolstering the economy. Louisiana has one of the lowest percentages of college graduates in the nation.
That has made it difficult for the state to attract and retain business, industry and jobs over the years. Stability in TOPS would be a powerful force in raising college graduation rates. Costs for TOPS have soared in recent years though, resulting in the establishment of a task force to study the program and make recommendations to the legislature next year on criteria, costs and other aspects of the scholarship system. State funding for TOPS was reduced last year to curtail costs, and the uncertainty caused by those cutbacks had a detrimental impact on enrollment at some universities. The president of LSU said that school “took a hit” in recruiting as legislators debated about TOPS funding.
Concern over the rising costs of the program is understandable. Participation in the program has more than doubled since 1998, and the cost has nearly tripled. The state is spending $291 million on TOPS scholarships this year. The task force studying the program is expected to consider current criteria, which include a 2.5 high school grade point average and a score of 20 on the ACT exam. There have been proposals to raise the criteria, which would lower participation and costs. There has also been discussion about limiting the amount of money provided to TOPS recipients for tuition costs and changing qualifications to assure increased opportunities for students from families in lower socio-economic levels to receive TOPS.
Before suggesting any reduction in funding for TOPS, members of the task force must take into consideration the fact that increased costs for TOPS have been created primarily by much higher tuition costs created by cuts in state funding. Studies also show that TOPS awards are already balanced between socio-economic levels in the state. This year, 31.6 percent of the recipients are from families with incomes below $50,000, 30.7 percent are in families with income between $50,000 and $100,000, and 31.3 are from families with income over $100,000. Another important point is that more recipients are maintaining eligibility for the scholarships. Just over 16 percent lost the awards last year compared to 41 percent in 2005. Costs are the major factor with TOPS, and the most reasonable way to reduce costs would be to raise state funding for universities. That could result in lower tuition costs and curtailed costs for TOPS.