Filed Under:  Education

Report says TOPS scholarship inequitably distributed over past 10 years

29th December 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

A recent report on Louisiana’s TOPS scholarship program examined how the money has been distributed over the past 10 years, as well as the retention and graduation rates of recipients.

The study, released this month by the Louisiana Board of Regents, provides the most detailed analysis of the program since its inception.

Started in 1998, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) uses GPA and ACT scores to award high school students full tuition at public and private universities in Louisiana.

Demographically, the report found that the scholarships have been predominately awarded to white students (79%), and female students (59%).

(According to 2013 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Louisiana is 63.5 percent white and 32.4 percent African American. The state is 51.1% female.)

According to the report, the average TOPS recipient was from a family with a household income ranging from $70,000 to $99,000, considerably above the state median income of $44,164.

Household income is not a factor in eligibility for TOPS, but lawmakers have debated whether to change any of the requirements from strictly academic merit-based to incorporating financial need.

Regarding the program’s racial and wealth disparity, State Superintendent John White gave the following response: “The racial achievement gap is a national tragedy, but it should not cause us to lower our standards. If we truly want to solve the problem of inequity in our students’ skills, we will start by raising expectations for all kids, so that rich parents and poor parents alike know that their children are being taught to the highest expectations in America.”

There are three levels of monetary award within TOPS. For minimum eligibility, a student must have a 2.5 GPA, and an ACT score of 20. The overall average of TOPS recipients for the past 10 years was an ACT score of 23.2 and a GPA of 3.3.

Since 2003, 195,447 students have been deemed eligible for the scholarship, with 90 percent accepting and enrolling in a post-secondary institution.

The disparities in the data raise the elusive, often ignored, but critical question: How does poverty affect education?

A year ago, the Huffington Post used graphs to compare national test results with eligibility for free and reduced lunch at the fourth and eighth grade levels. They concluded that, “The graphs unsurprisingly indicate that poverty is bad for learning, as students eligible for free and reduced lunch did significantly worse on the tests than their wealthier counterparts. Clearly, if we want to raise our nation’s test scores and reach a higher level of global competitiveness, lifting vulnerable learners out of poverty would be one way of doing so.”

Close to 20 percent of Louisiana’s population currently lives in poverty, according to the census data.

Another question raised by the data, and specifically the reliance on ACT scores, addresses the impact of test preparation. Test prep is a big business, with an array of offerings including software, books, private tutors, and classes.

The extra training often focuses on test-taking skills as much as the content of the test – strategies, as much as knowledge.

Test taking is described as a “highly coachable” skill, with comparisons made to increasing athletic performance by hiring a personal trainer.

Nationally, a backlash against the overuse of standardized tests is growing, and educators and parents are increasingly questioning whether the tests accurately measure the worth of a child.

An ongoing concern about the TOPS program is whether the recipients are able to complete their postsecondary degrees.

Students must maintain minimum academic criteria to keep their scholarship money.

The report demonstrated that TOPS recipients stay in post-secondary education into the second and third years at rates higher than non-TOPS students.

In 2013-2014, 11 percent of TOPS recipients had their awards cancelled in their first year (or immediately following) of postsecondary education.

Between 2003 and 2014, 33 percent of recipients (55,197 students) had their awards cancelled at some point during their postsecondary education.

The primary reason cited for cancellation was not earning enough hours within the academic year.

And while TOPS recipients graduate at rates higher than non-TOPS students, there are a significant number who do not graduate within six years for a baccalaureate degree, and three years for an associate degree.

Approximately 62 percent of TOPS recipients earn a baccalaureate degree within six years. Critics have bemoaned using state dollars to support the close to 40 percent of recipients who do not graduate within that time frame or at all.

Only 16 percent of TOPS recipients earned an associate degree within three years in 2008-2009, according to the study. During that same year, 22 percent of TOPS recipients earned an associate degree within four years.

The report also details the rapidly escalating cost of TOPS, and attributes it primarily to dramatically rising tuition rates. Rising enrollment rates are also listed as a factor. Between 1999 and 2014, total TOPS expenditures have increased 296 percent.

For the 1998-1999 school year, the average TOPS award was $2,286. In 2013-2014, the average had increased 98 percent to $4,530.

Amid Gov. Piyush Jindal’s unprecedented and deep slashes to higher education spending, (causing tuition hikes), the TOPS money has become increasingly scrutinized. However, Jindal has indicated that he has no intention of reforming the program.

This year, it is estimated that TOPS will cost the state $250 million. For the 2018-2019 school year, the estimate is $387 million.

Last spring, legislators unsuccessfully tried to scale back the scope of the program by raising the eligibility standards and limiting the number and capping the dollar amount of awards. One bill sought to have the students who lose their awards repay the state.

None of the most recent proposals passed, but the growing cost and effectiveness of TOPS will continue to be scrutinized by lawmakers.

According to the report, “All indications are that the TOPS eligibility requirements induce students to take a more rigorous high school curriculum, which in turn better prepares them for the ACT and for success in postsecondary education.”

Since 2003, just over 176,000 students have accepted TOPS scholarships.

This article originally published in the December 29, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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