Letter: Cutting TOPS is counterproductive

I have read with interest the letters and articles on how to fix the TOPS program. The letters and articles were written by people who have been led to believe TOPS needs fixing and since their proposals are all aimed at reducing the cost of the program, the cost must be what needs fixing.

To understand why higher education costs families and the TOPS program so much, one need only look at the recent financial history of public higher education in Louisiana.

When the price of oil fell from over $100 a barrel to less than $40 a barrel, Gov. Jindal and our legislators were determined there would be no tax increases.

The solution to the state’s financial problem was to cut state general fund support to higher education by approximately $711 million per year. The public was told that higher education could make up the loss via tuition increases. In other words, they taxed the families with students in college.

The much higher tuition caused the cost of TOPS to increase from $123 million to $300 million but the cost to the state general fund is only $240 million. About $60 million of the TOPS cost comes from revenues to the tobacco settlement and earnings of the tobacco trust fund. Both were approved by voters. The net result was that the state general fund came out about $500 million to the good at great cost to higher education.

The academic requirements for a TOPS award are based on student performance in college. Correlation studies of graduation versus grade point average in the 19-unit core curriculum and composite ACT score demonstrated that resident high school graduates who earn a 2.5 GPA requirement in the rigorous core curriculum and earn a 20 on the composite ACT score graduate at a 50 percent rate from our public colleges. Raising the GPA requirement or the ACT requirement will reduce the number of TOPS students and the cost, but it will also reduce the number of college graduates each year. The educational attainment of Louisiana’s population ranks 46th for the bachelor’s degree and 47th for advanced degrees. There is a strong correlation between the educational attainment of a state’s population and the economy of a state not including natural resources. Massachusetts ranks first in bachelor’s and advanced degrees, and its economy is always in the top five states of the nation. Funding TOPS is an investment in the future economy of Louisiana.

Raising the TOPS standards will impact students from poor families and students from poor parishes. One of the great benefits of TOPS has been the dramatic increases in the number of minority students who earn a TOPS award. In the past 10 years the increase for Asians has been 27.7 percent for American Indians 194 percent, for African Americans 50.5 percent, for Hispanics 286 percent and for whites 0.29 percent. The minority increases are larger than reported because 3,594 entering freshman TOPS students elected not to report their race. These students tend to be minorities. Raising the standards for an award will severely reduce these minority gains which involve most of our poor and therefore are so important to our future. The results of ACT 587 provide parish results by high school and the TOPS report for 2016 shows that while poor parishes are improving, we still have much to be gained.

Finally, there is a misunderstanding about institutional cost versus student load. Under formula funding a student that earns 120 semester hours in four years costs the state the same as one who earns 120 semester hours in five years TOPS only pays for four years so the student would pay the tuition, fees and living expenses for the fifth year. Students who must work have a difficult time earning 24 semester hours per year, but their degree costs the state no more than the student who completes 30 semester hours per year. These tend to be the students who lose the TOPS award

Dr. James Wharton
Professor and chancellor emeritus
Louisiana State University

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