Louisiana Higher Education Council troubled by number of TOPS recipients from millionaire households

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Members of the Louisiana Board of Regents said it was “very disturbing and disappointing” to find that over the past 10 years, TOPS funding has paid for the tuition fees of more than 11,000 Louisiana students, including parents had incomes of $ 1 million or more.

In a report to the board on Wednesday, Susannah Craig, deputy commissioner for academic affairs, said the scholarship program has funded the tuition fees of more than 11,000 students from millionaire households over the past decade.

Board member Collis Temple III asked if there was “a way to cap income” for TOPS recipients.

“I’m in a lucky position… My kids will probably qualify for TOPS when the opportunity arises, but I wouldn’t mind saying ‘You know what? They won it, but I’m still going to pay (their tuition) if they decide to stay in the state because that money can go to someone else, ”Temple said.

“Am I crazy about this?” ” he said.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students – or TOPS – is a merit-based state scholarship with modest academic requirements. The scholarship covers tuition, but not books, dorms, or student fees for Louisiana high school graduates attending state university. It lasts all four years of college and nearly 58,000 students have taken advantage of TOPS to cover their tuition fees during the 2020-2021 academic calendar.

About 15,000 high school graduates received new TOPS grants at the end of the last school year, according to an annual report presented to the board on Wednesday. Among these recipients, 6,567 students – about 40 percent – came from households with incomes of $ 100,000 or more. That’s about double the Louisiana median annual income of $ 49,000.

Robert Levy, another board member, said the Louisiana legislature has discussed making the TOPS scholarship more needs-based, but these discussions only take place when “we’re running out of money. “.

“Wait until they don’t have enough money for everyone, and you’ll see means testing (where students with higher-income parents get fewer scholarships) come back to the discussion table,” Levy said.

This is not what happened when the state ran out of cash in recent years. Due to a state budget deficit, the TOPS scholarship was reduced from 100 percent of tuition fees to 70 percent of tuition fees in the 2016-2017 school year. But the cut occurred in all areas and affected all students alike. The students’ ability to pay additional tuition fees and their academic performance were not factors.

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Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, an organization that advocates for financial relief for low-income people, said his organization had no formal recommendation as to whether TOPS should be capped by income. or not, but firmly believes that “we must increase aid based on need” for Louisiana students.

“Not a little, a lot,” he said.

GO Grants – a needs-based grant program for students – currently has $ 40 million in state funding, but needs $ 130 million to be fully funded, Moller said. For reference, TOPS received $ 321 million in funding last year.

About 23,500 students received the GO scholarship last year, with the average scholarship being around $ 1,212.

If academic requirements were increased or an income cap placed on TOPS, then the program wouldn’t be as expensive for the state, and that money could be spent on more funds for GO grants, Moller said.

“The problem with TOPS is that it’s a merit-based program that doesn’t demand a lot of merit,” he said. “If you want it to be really merit-based, you can increase the surrogacy requirement.”

To qualify for TOPS last year, students must have a minimum GPA of 2.5 and an ACT score of 20.

Moller said removing the ACT requirement – which he says has racial and socioeconomic disparities since wealthier students can pay for tutors or take the standardized test multiple times – would also make the distribution of scholarships more equitable. .

A legislative working group in 2018 also proposed to make TOPS more focused on top performing students or low income students. Senator proposed to cut tuition fees giving students a lump sum payment of $ 4,000 for the year, lower than the average annual tuition rate of $ 5,600 in Louisiana, which critics say would disproportionately hit poorer students, according to the Shreveport Times.

“The legislator should put all options on the table and consider the recommendations of its own task force” in reforming the TOPS, Moller said.

Wednesday, council called for budget increase for public higher education in Louisiana, including a $ 10 million increase in GO grant funding and a $ 9.3 million increase in TOPS funding.

“We want to try and do something that no one in the country has done, which is to decouple student success from family income,” Louisiana Higher Education Commissioner Kim Hunter Reed said on Wednesday. board of directors. “Because the correlation between family income and student success is so important” in a state that experiences as much poverty as Louisiana. “


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