JR Ball: The ‘T’ in TOPS stands for Texas

If there’s one thing Louisiana excels at it’s this: throwing money, tax breaks and a top-rated workforce training program at out-of-state companies in the desperate attempt to lure some “game changer” to the state.

We do this not only because every other state in the union does it, but also because making it rain with Benjamins might, just might, blind these site-selecting folks to our failing schools, crumbling roads and so-so universities—not to mention our under-educated and generally unhealthy population. Oh, and let’s not forget a business tax code more befuddling than LSU’s offense.

But this is what we do, and the free market zealots among us rarely—if ever—raise a quibble, opting instead to ardently embrace the flag of contradiction. Such is life in Louisiana.

That said, what’s the deal with this state and its taxpayers so gleefully, willingly and unapologetically financing workforce development for Texas?

I’m talking, of course, about the Texas … err … Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, which has been using taxpayers to underwrite student tuition since 1998.

Under its current incarnation, TOPS is a financial carrot dangled to keep the state’s best and brightest high school graduates from chasing their college education dreams at out-of-state universities. To a degree it has worked, especially at an LSU that’s more academically challenging from the days when it was best known as America’s premier party school.

The scholarship program also gets credit for boosting high school performance and college graduation rates. Never mind that “best and brightest” in Louisiana means anyone able to graduate high school with a 2.5 core course GPA and manage to knock down a 20 on the ACT.

In sporting parlance, Louisiana colleges have become a Triple-A farm club for Texas companies.

What TOPS doesn’t do is keep those bright minds—freshly educated by LSU and other in-state universities—from grabbing their degrees and heading for the border … most often to Texas for a higher-pay job and a better way of life. In sporting parlance, Louisiana colleges have become a Triple-A farm club for Texas companies.

Equally problematic: Costs for the wildly popular TOPS scholarship, which covers up to eight semesters of tuition, have shot up to an estimated $291 million this school year. Why? Because more students are reaching the eligibility standard—nearly 52,000 this academic year, up from 23,600 when the program began—and tuition on college campuses is escalating to offset state direct aid funding cuts.

Unlike other states, which use dedicated funding sources to operate similar programs, Louisiana does things its own way. TOPS does get a small portion of its money from a dedicated tobacco settlement, but more than three-quarters of the cash comes from general state tax dollars.

And like pretty much everything else involving our state government, finding the taxpayer jack to pay for TOPS is proving increasingly difficult. The state will spend some $290 million on the program this academic year, and shelled out $2.6 billion between 1999 and 2015.

There have been some ill-fated attempts by legislators to rein in those costs—raising minimum standards and adding financial eligibility requirement—but, like most entitlement programs, once in place there’s no turning back. Seriously, good luck getting a majority of legislators facing re-election to find the collective chutzpah to mess with something so beloved, especially by the middle class and affluent.

State Sen. Mack “Bodi” White, a Republican from Central, told The Associated Press it’s “been a struggle” to find the dollars to pay for TOPS in recent years, but added, “our kids’ education is a priority in the state of Louisiana.”

Perhaps, but if educating “our kids” is such a top priority then why have state legislators, like White, so easily whacked higher education funding over the past decade?

Should taxpayers be doling out largesse to students who bolt the state the minute their subsidized education is complete? Who cares if our kinda-best and sorta-brightest get a college degree in Louisiana if their employment eyes are upon Texas?

Regardless, the more appropriate question in these times of troubled fiscal waters is this: Should taxpayers be doling out largesse to students who bolt the state the minute their subsidized education is complete? Who cares if our kinda-best and sorta-brightest get a college degree in Louisiana if their employment eyes are upon Texas?

Take LSU, for example, where, according to LSU Career Services, roughly 47% of the 2012 graduating class left the state. Let’s concede some of these graduates were not from Louisiana and drop the figure to 40%. Consider this: There were roughly 14,000 LSU students receiving a TOPS scholarship during the 2015-16 academic year and, based on percentages, some 5,600 left Louisiana for out-of-state jobs shortly after graduating. Again, based on stats, a big chunk of those educated went west to Texas.

Put simply: The concept of Louisiana taxpayers providing semi-free tuition to homegrown students drooling at the prospect of living, working and playing in Texas—or some other state—is hardly good public policy.

Still, if the state is going to use TOPS as a higher education funding mechanism, it makes sense for Louisiana to get the most efficient bang for its buck, investing in students who will live, work and pay taxes here after graduation.

Keep TOPS just the way it is now with this caveat: Those who leave the state within four years of graduation must repay all or a portion of the scholarship amount. Leave right after graduation and owe the full amount; do so after a year of working here and owe 75%; leave after two and it’s 50%; leave after three and you’re on the hook for 25%. If legislators want, offer a repayment plan charging interest, say 3%, over 10 years.

If some company in Texas is passionate enough about hiring a Louisiana-educated engineer or accountant then its partners can make the repayment of TOPS part of the enticement package. Anyone who has seen “The Firm” knows that type of thing is common.

It makes zero sense for Louisiana taxpayers to be educating the Texas workforce.

Sadly, this idea, will meet the same fate as previous TOPS reform proposals. Why? Because TOPS is little more than a tax cut for the middle class and wealthy covered in a shiny scholarship wrapper.

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