Raising the TOPS Bar

May 12, 2014

Senator Jack Donahue, author of SB 520

Every year, lawmakers look at the climbing cost of TOPS--$217-million this year, $235-million next year—and then start looking for ways to rein in the runaway expense. Dozens of bills are filed, and all usually die in committee.

Of the 20 TOPS bills filed for the current session, one has broken out of the usual pattern. SB 520, by Mandeville Senator Jack Donahue, is being heard by the full Senate today.

Donahue’s bill raises the standards required to earn a TOPS award, increasing both GPAs and ACT scores needed to qualify for one of the college scholarships. When it was heard in committee, Dr. Jim Caillier with the Taylor Foundation objected to the changes. He was particularly concerned about upping the base ACT score from the current 20 to the proposed score of 22.

“Twenty-two creates a bridge too far. It eliminates 17,000 students, and half of the minority students,” Caillier explained, adding that statewide ACT averages have gone up less than a full point over the past decade.

“Would you be agreeable if we just raised it by one point, rather than two? Does that shorten the bridge?” asked Ville Platte Senator Eric Lafleur, a member of the Senate Education Committee.

“What it does is a matter of how many students you want to eliminate,” Caillier responded, acerbically.

“I don’t want to eliminate,” Lafleur stated. “I want to motivate.”

TOPS standards have not been changed in the entire 20-year history of the program. The head of the Council for a Better Louisiana, Barry Erwin, says it’s time to seriously consider doing so.

“At a time when we in our state are looking at raising standards in K-12 education, we should also think about doing the same thing with TOPS,” Erwin advocated.

“The higher we set the bar, they seem to be able to hit it,” agreed Senator Mike Walsworth of West Monroe.

Donahue’s bill would save the state an estimated $24-million per year, with a portion of the savings being dedicated to need-based GO Grants. That chronically-underfunded program provides college aid for financially disadvantaged students. Unlike TOPS, which goes to Louisiana high school graduates attending college full time, GO Grants are awarded to older, non-traditional students and those attending college part time.