TOPS “Extra Effort”

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

February 20, 2018

by Michael Dannenberg

There is an answer to Louisiana’s struggle with insufficient funding and rigid design of the popular Taylor Opportunity Program Scholarship (TOPS), but it requires a hard decision and compromise that politicians in Baton Rouge like Washington prefer to avoid.

Unless Louisiana is going to increase or stabilize TOPS funding, which it should, it is going to have to prioritize aid. In doing so, it should break free of the binary debate of TOPS aid based exclusively on student test scores and college attended vs. financial aid distributed based exclusively on family economic need. Best is to distribute state student financial aid based on a combination of academic performance and need.

A meaningful assessment of academic achievement takes into consideration what a student has overcome. It’s harder to be an “A” student and get a 27 on the ACT when you live in a poor household and go to a poor school with other poor kids than when you grow up the child of Donald Trump. Heck, it’s harder to be a high achieving student when you grow up in a middle-class household going to a middle-class school as opposed to those who don’t have to worry about after school work and summer jobs and whose parents can pay for fancy private schools and expensive test prep courses.

If insufficient funding for the TOPS program is responded to with an across-the-board cut as Governor Edwards proposes or a prioritization that cuts grants for working class students and increases them for those high ACT scores who benefit from private tutors among other advantages as some in the legislature propose, it will make one of the most regressive state student financial aid systems even more regressive.

A pro-rata cut in TOPS funding will lead many working class and low-income students to drop down from a four-year college to a community college, from full-time status to part-time status, or to pursue more affordable college opportunities out of state. The research indicates the first two phenomena dramatically reduce the likelihood of degree attainment by 30 and 50 percent, respectively. The latter leads to a permanent exodus of human capital. Some 80 percent of students settle in the state where they earned a college degree.

What we recommend is a different response, a more nuanced measure of merit. Think of it as a TOPS “Extra Effort” award. Consider the following prioritization of students with funds distributed to all on a sliding scale.

We at Education Reform Now have devised an earned aid formula based on the current TOPS academic performance tiers with an “extra effort” consideration that gives an additional weight to families in the 40th to 80th income percentile and an additional weight to families in the 0 to 40th income percentile.

The effect is that in the event of insufficient TOPS funding overall, some scholarship aid is guaranteed to high achieving students at virtually all income levels and at least some financial aid is guaranteed to economically disadvantaged students at all current TOPS academic test score minimum achievement levels.

A sliding scale rewards most the students who work the hardest to come the furthest as opposed to those who work the least to get to the same spot. It’s the difference between equality and equity.

For state legislators to give up on the idea of full TOPS funding is hard, and education advocates like myself do not want them to do so. Likewise, triaging TOPS funding in a way that does not favor four-year colleges vs. community colleges or public vs. private institutions requires compromise that is not in political fashion.

But leadership requires hard decisions and thoughtful compromises. In time, the public rewards solutions over debate, policies that prioritize students over institutions, and political courage. State legislators debating TOPS should make that extra effort.

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 Full text of our recommendation to the Louisiana TOPS Commission here.