Louisiana’s TOPS Scholarship Program Alive and Kicking

In Louisiana, the higher education community has had a tumultuous past six months. In January, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said that he would not raise taxes in Louisiana in 2015-16, despite a $1.6 billion deficit that would have fallen most heavily on health care and higher education.

In Jindal’s proposed budget, higher education stood to lose 82 percent of its state funds, which many believe would have decimated the system and forced some campuses to close down altogether. The state avoided that fate by wrangling a somewhat convoluted higher education budget that involves using tax credits to make up some of the missing funds and scales back potential costs that the TOPS (Taylor Opportunity for Students) program might incur in future years.

Jindal vetoed the attempt to change the TOPS program, a popular merit-based scholarship program that covers college tuition for Louisiana residents attending private and public schools in state. The trouble with the TOPS program is that it is tied to tuition prices, so, as the cost of tuition rises, so does TOPS’ pricetag. The TOPS program cost the state $250 million in 2014 and is projected to cost $387 million in 2018-19.

Since TOPS has the potential to be so expensive down the line, state legislators looked at changing the program. Under a bill proposed by Sen. Jack Donohue, the TOPS tuition rate would be locked in at its 2015-16 levels, and, instead of automatically increasing each year to match tuition, TOPS increases would require legislative approval.

“TOPS is a fantastic program, but there’s a recognition that its growth really comes out of the same pool of funds that are available for [all of higher education] operating expenses. So there was no desire to minimize that, but, at the same time, [the goal was] to in some fashion put some restrictions on it,” said Dr. Joseph C. Rallo, Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education.

Jindal vetoed Donohue’s bill last week, stating in the veto letter, “I made a promise to the students and families of this state that a TOPS scholarship would be available to every child who worked hard and met the performance criteria established by law—this legislation would renege on that promise.”

Rallo said he expects that Donohue will try a similar bill in the next legislative session.

In his veto letter, Jindal also wrote, “Since TOPS was created, it has aided our state by sending nearly half a million students to college who may otherwise not have been able to go.”

Yet at least one higher education leader in Louisiana contests the notion that TOPS is a lifeline for the financially needy. Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, said that TOPS has moved away from its mission in the late ‘80s and ‘90s to serve primarily low-income students.

“The demographics of the program really shifted. Now it serves mostly White and upper middle class students,” he said. Kimbrough has authored a number of op-eds on the program.

According to a report from the Louisiana Board of Regents that came out in December 2014, 79 percent of TOPS recipients were White and 59 percent were female, between 2003 and 2014. The average recipient came from a household that earns between $70,000 and $99,000 a year.

While the TOPS program currently has no income requirement, between 1989 and 1997 it was designated specifically for low-income families. TOPS evolved from a program called the Taylor Plan, which was founded in 1989 and later renamed the Tuition Assistance Plan (TAP). Families with one child were only eligible for the Taylor Plan and TAP if they had an annual income of no more than $25,000. Income eligibility increased by $5,000 per child and was capped out at families with annual incomes of $35,000. Adjusted for inflation, $35,000 in 1997 dollars would now be about $51,000, still less than what the average TOPS recipient’s family makes but more than Louisiana’s median household income of $44,164.

Kimbrough said that the 2003-2014 report shows that TOPS now benefits primarily the middle class. “It’s not benefiting who it was meant to benefit. They have really hijacked this program,” he said. “If you come from a family of means, the likelihood is you’re going to have better ACT scores; you’re going to get TOPS. Poor people, you’re not going to have the ACT score; you’re not going to get it.”

In 2007, the state inaugurated the Go Grants program, which provides a stipend for low-income students. It is intended to make up the difference between what Pell Grants and financial aid might provide and the actual cost of college tuition and fees.

Rallo said that the idea of putting more money from the legislature toward Go Grants has been an ongoing conversation.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.