The Louisiana Board of Regents listens to a speaker. (JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illumiantor)
Louisiana Board of Regents members said it was “very troubling and disappointing” to find out that over the last 10 years, TOPS funding paid the college tuition for more than 11,000 Louisiana students whose parents had an income of $1 million or more.
In a report to the board Wednesday, Susannah Craig, deputy commissioner for academic affairs, said the scholarship program has funded the tuition of more than 11,000 students from millionaire households over the past decade.
Board member Collis Temple III asked if “there was a way to put a cap on income” for TOPS recipients.
“I’m in a fortunate situation… My children will probably qualify for TOPS when the opportunity presents itself, but I wouldn’t mind saying ‘You know what? They earned it, but I’m still going to pay [their tuition] if they decide to stay in state because that money can go to somebody else,’” Temple said.
“Am I crazy for that?” he said.
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The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students — or TOPS — is a merit-based state scholarship with modest academic requirements. The scholarship covers tuition, but not books, dorm rooms or student fees for Louisiana high school graduates attending college in the state. It lasts all four years of college, and almost 58,000 students took advantage of TOPS to cover their tuition during the 2020-2021 academic calendar.
About 15,000 high school graduates were awarded new TOPS grants at the end of the last school year, according to an annual report presented to the board Wednesday. Of those recipients, 6,567 students — around 40 percent — came from households with incomes of $100,000 or more. That’s about twice Louisiana’s annual median income of $49,000.
Robert Levy, another member of the board, said that the Louisiana Legislature has discussed making the TOPS scholarship more need-based, but those discussions only take place when “we start running out of money.”
“Wait until they don’t have enough money to go around, and you’ll see means-testing [where students whose parents have a higher income receive less scholarship money] come back to the discussion table,” Levy said.
That’s not what happened when the state was hard up for cash in recent years though. Due to a state budget deficit, the TOPS scholarship was reduced from covering 100 percent of tuition to covering 70 percent of tuition during the 2016-2017 school year. But the cut happened across the board and affected all students equally. Students’ ability to pay tuition wasn’t a factor in whether they lost part of their scholarships. Wealthy students and poor student were treated equally.
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Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, an organization that advocates for financial relief for low-income people, said his organization doesn’t have any formal recommendations about whether TOPS should be capped by income or not, but strongly believes that “we need to increase need-based aid” for Louisiana students.
“Not by a little, by a lot,” he said.
GO Grants — a need-based grant program for students — currently has $40 million of funding from the state, but needs $130 million to be fully funded, Moller said. For reference, TOPS received $321 million of funding last year.
About 23,500 students were awarded the GO Grant last year, with the average award being around $1,212.
If the academic requirements were raised or an income cap was placed on TOPS, then the program wouldn’t be as expensive for the state, and that money could be put toward more funding for GO Grants, Moller said.
“The problem with TOPS is that it’s a merit-based program that doesn’t require an awful lot of merit,” he said. “If you want to make it truly merit based, you could raise the GPA requirement.”
To qualify for TOPS last year, students must have had a minimum GPA of 2.5 and ACT score of 20.
Moller said getting rid of the ACT requirement — which he said has racial and socioeconomic disparities since wealthier students can pay for tutors or take the standardized test multiple times — would also make scholarship distribution more equitable.
A legislative task force in 2018 also proposed making TOPS more focused toward either higher-performing or lower-income students. One senator proposed reducing the tuition award to give students a flat $4,000 payment for the year, below the $5,600 average annual tuition rate in Louisiana, which critics said would disproportionately hit poorer students, according to the Shreveport Times.
“The legislature should put all options on the table and consider the recommendations of its own task force” in reforming TOPS, Moller said.
Wednesday, the board requested a budget increase for public higher education in Louisiana, including a $10 million increase in GO Grant funding and $9.3 million increase in TOPS funding.
“We want to try to do something that no one in the country has done, which is to decouple student success from family income,” Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed said Wednesday to the board. “Because the correlation between family income and student success is so significant” in a state that has as much poverty as Louisiana.”
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