Despite years of public discussion of the purpose of Louisiana’s marquee education program, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, a scholarship available to thousands of high school graduates each year, officials have never resolved a central question of the program — who is TOPS supposed to benefit?
The academically high-performing, regardless of family income, or students who need a lift out of intergenerational poverty?
The chances that question will ever be answered just got slimmer. Last year, the legislature passed a bill that Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law, removing the family household income reporting requirement for TOPS recipients.
For the last 25 years, any Louisiana high school student who gets a 2.5 GPA, and scores above the state average on the ACT, is eligible to receive thousands of dollars to attend a four-year college in Louisiana. The scholarship that makes this possible is called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, commonly called TOPS.
Because TOPS is so accessible — the scholarship is a cornerstone of how many Louisiana students are able to attend college.
“TOPS is what makes LSU affordable for most students,” says Christina Fontenot, college and career director for College Track New Orleans, and a former college counselor.
That’s also made TOPS a central element of the state’s public spending. For the 2021-2022 school year, the state spent $310 million on TOPS, up from $146 million in 2010, from 1.8 percent of the state’s general fund, to 3.3 percent.
A Surprise Cut
The growing size of the program has also meant that, in lean years, it’s been a target for legislators. Richard Davis, until recently a policy fellow with the Louisiana Budget Project, a left-leaning economic policy think tank, was a student at Southeastern Louisiana University in 2016, when the state faced a budget crisis brought on by a collapsing oil industry. (Davis left his position at LBP in December.) At the time, legislators decided to cut all TOPS grants by 30 percent — a change announced in the middle of the year.
When Davis received an email in November of 2016 informing him that his TOPS award would be cut by more than $1,000 the following semester, he said other students dropped out, or took semesters off, because they couldn’t afford the difference. That wasn’t an option for him, he says — his car wasn’t reliable, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to move to his hometown of Hammond and back.
“I had to take out unsubsidized loans for the first time,” he says. “I remember hearing horror stories about how they accrue interest immediately. That really scared me as a 19-year-old sophomore in college. Thankfully I was able to pay off that unsubsidized loan, but a lot of other students really struggled with that cut.”
The cut, Davis says, felt to many students like a betrayal of promises made to them by the state government — that as long as they kept their grades up, college would remain affordable.
“It was really jarring, when you hear directly from students, the impact [losing TOPS] could have on them,” Fontenot says. “They’re the first person to go away to college, who’s going to be a doctor or a pharmacist, and that vision may be in jeopardy based on this.”
But that’s in part because TOPS, unlike many public scholarships, isn’t designed around financial need. Instead, it’s trying to accomplish a set of sometimes contradictory goals using eligibility standards focused entirely on academic performance. The ubiquity of the program makes it essential to college access for many Louisiana students — but, as the 2016 budget crisis showed, the program’s need-blind structure means that the most disadvantaged students are hit hardest by reductions.
“An equal cut sounds like it makes the most sense, but it disproportionately impacts low-income students who don’t have the resources to really absorb that cut,” Davis says. “They have to either drop out, or in my case, take out student loans and a part-time job.”
And many observers of the state education system told The Lens, state money could be used differently to support those students directly.
A Scholarship for All
TOPS is the two-and-a-half decade heir to a series of state-funded scholarships. It was passed in 1997 (originally named the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students, later renamed for Taylor), and replaced a pair of much smaller grants. One of those was structured similarly to TOPS — students had to get a 2.5 GPA and minimum score of 20 on the ACT — but “it was a merit aid program with a need based component,” Davis says. It capped family income at $35,000, just above the state’s median household income in 1997. The other provided full scholarships to anyone in the top five percent of their graduating class.
The effect of rolling these two scholarships into TOPS was to broadly expand eligibility for full public scholarships to students whose families made more than median income.
The program has several goals, which the Board of Regents describes in its annual report. One, often cited in discussions of TOPS, is to “keep Louisiana’s best and brightest in the state” for college—in other words, to stop brain drain.
Students protesting cuts to TOPS have addressed that goal head on: when Davis, and other Southeastern students went to the capital back in 2018, many wore sweatshirts from out-of-state universities.
The program has been somewhat successful in retaining Louisiana high school graduates. Over the last 10 years, 86 percent of those students who’ve been offered TOPS accepted it, staying in the state. The Board of Regents’ 2021 TOPS report shows that over that time, the proportion of students accepting the grant even rose. That trend has reversed in the past few years, and although the Board of Regents doesn’t keep data on how many students remain in state after graduation, a Washington Post analysis put the number around 80 percent.
Much less clear is how well TOPS achieves another goal, to “promote access to … higher education.”
According to the 2021 annual report produced by the Board of Regents, 45 percent of students using TOPS come from families making more than $100,000 — double the state’s median household income. Between 2010 and 2020, 11,000 TOPS grantees had household incomes of more than $1 million, according to data shared at a hearing in 2021. At the same time, the proportion of TOPS recipients coming from households making below $100,000 a year has dropped steadily.
“In the seven-plus years that I’ve been working,” says Tim Spahn Sattler, a counselor at the NET High Schools, a group of alternative schools that offer flexible scheduling, serving students who have fallen behind, are overage, or otherwise not served by traditional schools, “I’ve only had one of my students be able to access and use TOPS.”
And as reporting from the education outlet the Hechinger Report showed in 2019, money spent on TOPS could be put towards higher education in other ways. In 2020-2021, the state spent just under $320 million funding TOPS grants, and $4 billion over 20 years. Over those two decades, it cut one billion dollars in direct funding to universities, according to Hechinger. Those universities, needing to fill budget holes, began increasing tuition under a law championed by Bobby Jindal in 2010. Between the 1997 inception of TOPS and 2015, tuition at public universities in Louisiana tripled.
“What they didn’t foresee was the impacts [defunding universities] would have on the TOPS program,” Davis says. As tuition rose, each TOPS recipient’s grant rose. “That’s the main reason why you saw TOPS costs ballooning.”
Students who received TOPS were somewhat shielded from rising tuition by their scholarships — in effect, the state replaced direct funding to the universities, which would benefit all students in the form of lower tuition, with funds attached to specific high-performing students. “This is just a backdoor way for the state to fund higher education, rather than doing it in a direct way,” Rossmeier says.
Meanwhile, students who don’t qualify for TOPS have borne the brunt of a decade of rising costs. “We estimated that while 33.6 percent of Louisiana resident students have the financial resources to cover the increased fees, the other 66.4 percent will face an additional $157.6 million in unmet need ($4,657 per student) over a four-year undergraduate enrollment,” state legislative auditors wrote in a 2021 college affordability report.
Because TOPS is structured to reward academic achievement without consideration for need, it’s not surprising that it’s not necessarily the most effective program at serving low-income students. The bigger problem, counselors say, is that money spent on TOPS could be used for need-based programs specifically focused on making college affordable.
The most obvious example is the state’s GO Grant scholarship, which goes to students at public universities in Louisiana who receive federal Pell grants. “It was created in 2008 to support low income students,” Davis says, “but since then, it hasn’t been fully funded. That’s one of the biggest pushes today: how can you fund this TOPS scholarship that disproportionately supports white, high income students, and leaves low income students in the dust?”
In 2023, the state will allocate just over $50 million to Go Grants, about one sixth of what it spent on TOPS in 2022. That funding isn’t intended to cover every student who has unmet costs. Instead, it’s distributed to universities, which then divide it among their eligible population.
“Most other states have far more needs-based aid available than we do,” Rossmeier says. “It’s just counterintuitive, in a state with this level of poverty, that you wouldn’t have greater needs based aid available to students.”
TOPS has been described as “a sacred cow,” wildly popular across the state. And particularly now, with the state flush with federal pandemic and infrastructure money, it’s unlikely that legislators will feel pressure to change the program.
But that could change next time the state faces a budget shortfall. That’s what happened in the 2016-2017 school year, when students like Davis had their TOPS grants cut 30 percent — the first cut in TOPS’ history.
That budget cut has had long-lasting consequences, Spahn Sattler says. “If you’re someone who is living paycheck to paycheck, and trying to fund college, [TOPS] doesn’t provide the sort of stability that would make someone feel confident to say, ‘I’m going to apply to college.’”
Students who need college assistance most, in other words, are most burdened by uncertainties in the scholarship.
To address the 2016-2017 crisis, the legislature decoupled TOPS grants from future tuition hikes — a major driver of historic cost increases. TOPS grants are now frozen at the level of tuition during the 2016-2017 school year. But costs to students have continued to grow: while tuition hasn’t increased much since then, school fees—which aren’t covered by TOPS—have increased by an average of 67 percent between 2015 and 2019, adding more than a thousand dollars to the annual bill for a public education.
In the summer of 2017, the legislature created a TOPS task force, composed of 10 state senators, which would review “ways to ensure the program’s long-term viability.”
The findings from that task force, announced before the 2018 legislative session, were decidedly mixed. Rather than forward a few recommendations to the entire legislature, the task force instead raised nine divergent paths forward. “We’ve narrowed [these proposals] from maybe a hundred, to nine,” argued Dan “Blade” Morrish, chair of the task force, in an interview with LPB.
Many of the proposals directly contradicted one another in substance and goals. On one end of the spectrum were plans like that favored by Morrish, which would have capped the least-selective Opportunity grants at $4,000 apiece, regardless of the tuition of the university the recipient attended. That would have saved the state an estimated $20 million a year.
Another approach, favored by state senator Gary Carter Jr. (D) of Algiers, tried to address inequities. It would have reshaped TOPS grants during budget shortfalls, cutting the grants of students from high-income students before those of low-income students.
The biggest change resulting from the budget crisis was legislation which raised the GPA thresholds for Performance and Honors grants from 3.0 to 3.25 and 3.5, respectively. Those new standards took effect for students who graduated in 2022.
In 2022, the legislature passed a law that could make those economic disparities less obvious next time it revisits TOPS.
Senate Bill 81, which cuts the demographic data the Board of Regents is required to collect, was introduced in February by Senator Mack “Bodi” White, chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. The initial version of the bill would have ended reporting requirements for race, gender, and family income. The final bill, which passed unanimously and was signed by Governor John Bel Edwards, removed only the family income reporting requirement. Edwards’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
According to an Advocate staff editorial, “White says his measure is in line with the spirit of the TOPS program, which was ‘sold as color-blind, income blind.’”
The Lens reached out to education nonprofits, policy researchers, and advocacy groups to try to gauge how observers were understanding the law’s potential impact. Most said they hadn’t closely examined the issue. Rossmeier, of Tulane’s Cowen Institute, said that he hadn’t followed the policy closely, but “if I’m understanding what the legislation did correctly, it’s disappointing.”
He said that data had been useful in past research produced by the Cowen Institute. Others, including the libertarian Pelican Institute, supported it, “given that the data collection in question wasn’t specifically tied to the TOPS eligibility requirements,” explained Erin Bendily, vice president for policy and strategy, in an email to The Lens.
Both the Advocate and the Louisiana Budget Project opposed the change. Data showing the disproportionate wealth of TOPS recipients, Davis says, “really sparked the conversation at the Board of Regents and across the state about how we can better improve college access for low-income students.”
And based on household income data, the Board of Regents itself has raised questions about the structure of TOPS. One member, at the 2021 hearing in which data on millionaire households receiving TOPS was presented, asked if “there was a way to put a cap on income.” However, changing the program in such a way is up to the legislature. And future legislative sessions around TOPS will no longer have the data immediately available.
The official TOPS report for 2022, issued in October, did not contain household income information.
White’s office did not respond to multiple interview requests. The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, which administers TOPS, told The Lens that the agency “does not direct or comment on policy for TOPS.”
The Board of Regents will continue to have access to some of the income data, because all students who apply for federal loans or financial aid will provide it anyway. However, the TOPS application itself will no longer ask about income.
That means that the richest students, who apply for TOPS grants but not other aid, are unlikely to be counted in state data, making the true scale of TOPS’ assistance to wealthy families impossible to know.