Editorial: Best way to contain cost of TOPS is to raise standards

You can’t blame state Sen. Dan Morrish for trying to inject a little fiscal sanity into a popular program.

An attempt by Morrish, R-Jennings, to rein in the growth of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, better known as TOPS,

failed last week when the Senate Education Committee defeated it.

TOPS pays in-state college tuition and certain fees for Louisiana students who compile a 2.5 grade point average on a 4.0

scale on core subjects and a minimum of 20 on the ACT standardized test.

The program has been embraced by parents and students since its origins in 1989 as the Louisiana Taylor Plan, named for its

leading advocate, Patrick F. Taylor. But it is also has become costlier by the year.

The program cost $780,000 in 1989,

$35 million in 1998 when 18,000 students took advantage of it. This

year, it cost $168

million when 45,000 students qualified for TOPS benefits. Analysts

say the program’s bill to the state will run $204 million

next year.

Morrish’s Senate Bill 83 would have

capped TOPS awards at current tuition levels plus 10 percent. The

amount could be adjusted

beginning with the 2014-15 fiscal year and every other year

thereafter. Morrish said his intent was to ensure TOPS’ future.

Morrish noted that Georgia, Arkansas and Florida have altered similar programs because of mounting costs.

If approved, the bill would have saved $21.4 million in fiscal year 2014, nearly $60 million in fiscal year 2017 and $74 million

in fiscal year 2018.

Barry Erwin, president of the nonpartisan Council for a Better Louisiana, said the time has come to review the TOPS program.

But James Callier said TOPS is a wise investment in Louisiana students that is benefitting the state. Gov. Bobby Jindal has

also been a proponent of TOPS in its present form and said he would oppose any changes to the program. That likely was the

kiss of death for Morrish’s effort.

A survey conducted earlier this year by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab found that 78 percent of the 1,000 respondents

opposed any reduction of TOPS benefits. However, 57 percent of those respondents said they supported raising the academic

requirements for qualifying for TOPS.

The governor’s support of TOPS is admirable, but it is also delaying the inevitable. As its cost rise, there will come a time

when state lawmakers will have no choice but to control TOPS’ costs.

The 2.5 GPA and 20 on the ACT test requirements are moderate at best. The best way to contain the cost of the program is to

raise these academic standards.

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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, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.