Debates about Louisiana’s free college tuition program known as TOPS are cyclical in the Legislature, cropping up every few years as lawmakers raise concerns about the program’s ballooning price tag or notice the disparities in who receives the aid.
The latest questioning came Wednesday in the House Appropriations Committee, prompted by charts showing much of the tuition aid goes to wealthier families and comparing TOPS spending to the significantly lower financing earmarked for need-based aid programs for college students.
It’s part of a perennial discussion at the Louisiana Legislature about who TOPS should help. Those discussions, however, have never generated significant change to one of Louisiana’s most popular entitlement programs.
TOPS, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is paying an estimated $321 million in the current budget year to cover the tuition costs of nearly 59,000 students.
That price tag has grown nearly every year since the program was created. It’s expected to increase to $331 million in the upcoming 2021-22 school year and reach nearly $360 million three years later as the number of students eligible for free tuition continues to edge upward.
TOPS, which began in 1998, covers college tuition costs for high school students who complete a certain curriculum, reach a modest grade point average and earn at least a 20 on the ACT college entrance test for the basic award. There are different criteria for homeschooled students and some other situations. Students must maintain a certain GPA in college to keep receiving the aid.
Supporters of the current structure say TOPS helps boost high school achievement by steering students to courses they otherwise might not take, encourages students to attend college and assists in efforts to keep the brightest students in Louisiana.
But two Baton Rouge Democrats on the Appropriations Committee were particularly struck by a chart that showed more than 69% of TOPS recipients in the 2018-19 school year, the latest data available, came from families with incomes above Louisiana’s median household income of $49,469.
More than 22% of TOPS recipients, according to the data from the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, were from households with incomes above $150,000.
“I am deeply troubled by this chart because what it does in my mind is leave those who are less served further behind,” said Rep. Barbara Carpenter.
Carpenter and Rep. C. Denise Marcelle suggested most students from higher earning households would have gone to college anyway. Marcelle said more dollars should be steered to Louisiana’s Go Grant program, which provides need-based aid to low- and moderate-income students.
Funding for grants has stayed relatively flat, ranging from $25 million to $28 million over the last decade. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has proposed boosting spending on Go Grants to $40 million in the next school year.
“I’ve been seeing this every year: We have to beg for money for Go Grants but we fully fund TOPS,” Marcelle said. “And those are the people who many times can afford to pay for their education versus people who cannot. How do we change the outcome of the people in our state by lifting up those who are less likely to have the funds?”
Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed said Louisiana will need to boost targeted spending on those without means if it wants to greatly increase the number of people who hold a college degree or other employment credential beyond a diploma.
“We have to put our dollars where our priorities are, and if we want to make sure more people are moving from poverty to prosperity, then we have to fund need-based aid,” Reed said.
Marcelle reminded lawmakers that when philanthropist Pat Taylor created the scholarship program that was the precursor to TOPS, it focused on low- and moderate-income students.
“That was the initial intent,” Marcelle said. “What we have here is showing that it’s just the opposite. The percentage is so much lower of the kids who actually need the TOPS grant.”
Rep. Daryl Deshotel, a Hessmer Republican, pushed back against the household income chart, questioning why the data was collected. He noted that no matter what Taylor created in the previous program, TOPS has been “a merit-based program,” based on a student’s accomplishments.
And so the debate goes on for another year, with no plans to heavily rewrite a program that so many of the state’s middle-class families support.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.