TOPS changes may be inevitable

Published 4:00 am Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A committee charged with reviewing higher education in Louisiana has begun to look at a popular tuition-free program for qualifying college students.

The Taylor Program for Students, known as TOPS, provides merit-based scholarships to state residents who attend certain public and private colleges and universities in Louisiana.

The brainchild of Louisiana businessman Patrick Taylor, the program began in 1999. Students qualify for tuition by attaining a minimum grade point average (2.5 on a 4.0 scale) on core high school courses and a minimum scores of either 17 on the ACT or 820 on the SAT.

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Needless to say, the program is widely popular with students and more so with parents who normally foot the bill for their children’s college education.

This year, TOPS will cost the state $154 million, most of which will come from the general fund. With universities having the ability to raise tuition by 10 percent annually if they meet certain criteria, it’s certain that TOPS’ price tag will grow.

The 18-member Governance Commission is examining TOPS with an eye on keeping its costs under control.

David Longanecker, president of the Colorado-based Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, noted that the value of grants for needy students is nearly six times less than the expenditure for TOPS. He said the value of each GO grant has decreased from $2,000 to $1,000.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said TOPS will never be eliminated, but it may have to be altered.

Loganecker said the standards for TOPS should be raised so that it funds “exceptional” students, not just good ones.

Such a move would up the GPA and ACT/SAT score requirements.

Others have suggested cutting TOPS costs through means testing for qualifying students, arguing that a family with financial assets and resources does not need the free tuition.

Another suggestion is to require TOPS students who flunk out of college to pay the tuition as a penalty for their academic performance.

All of this could be an academic exercise because TOPS has become a sacred cow for parents of college-bound students. Getting state lawmakers to embrace any changes that make it harder to qualify for the program won’t be easy.

But the sheer cost of the program may make some alterations inevitable.