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Editorial: TOPS is in dire need of reform

Last Modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 6:15 PM

Out of the mouth of babes, the Good Book tells us, often comes wisdom beyond their years.

Though they were bit older than babes, three Louisiana high school teenagers offered remarkable insight to a task force considering reforms to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, more commonly known as TOPS.

The program pays for in-state college tuition for students that achieve at least a 2.5 high school grade point average in certain core subjects and score a minimum of 20 out of a possible 36 on the ACT test.

Kalen Larousse, a senior at Thibodaux High School, told the Tuition Task Force made up of state lawmakers, academic leaders and high school and college students, that the standards to qualify for TOPS are too low.

She said that there is a correlation between the minimum ACT score of 20 and that state’s average ACT test score at 19.6. She said if the minimum ACT score requirement for TOPS was raised to 23, the average ACT score would also rise.

Patrick Flanigan, a student at Mandeville High School, said some mechanism should be put in place to ensure better performance by TOPS recipients. He noted that more than 40 percent of TOPS students eventually are disqualified from the program because of poor academic performance in college. Flanigan said at that point TOPs becomes a worthless investment on the part of the state for a large segment of TOPS qualifiers.

Shelby Paine, a senior at Captain Shreve High School in Shreveport, said the TOPS program should only pay for the first 12 hours per semester that a student takes, but require that a student take at least 15 hours to be eligible. That would not only reduce the TOPS costs to the state, but would force the TOPS student to put up some of their own money, thus having skin in the game.

Another suggestion was placing TOPS on a sliding scale where students would receive less money in their freshman year, but see the stipends increase as they progressed through their college career. That, proponents say, would encourage students to remain in school.

All of these suggestions come under the specter of TOPS rising costs. When the program first began in 1999, it cost the state $41 million. Last year, the price tag reached $166 million and its predicted to cross the $200 million mark in the near future.

Any reasonable mind would comprehend that though TOPS is wildly popular, that growth pattern is unsustainable.

The problem is that Gov. Bobby Jindal has yet to acknowledge that and has instead threatened to veto any legislation that curtails TOPS awards.

That means necessary reforms to TOPS will be hard-pressed to find more than token support in the halls of the state Legislature.

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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Mike Jones, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.

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