Analysis: Louisiana lawmakers renew talk of TOPS disparities

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 GPA and earn at least a 20 on the ACT college entrance test. 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.

Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed says 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. Read the full story.