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TOPS, LEAP, GRAD ACT and Louisiana budget woes
Written by  // Friday, 22 May 2015 11:32 //

Louisiana-house-repsby Ron Chapman

Louisiana faces a serious problem as it relates to Higher Education. Over the past few years Governor Jindal has seen fit to cut $700 million from public education then shift the financial burden to students through increases in tuition and fees. Students seeking to better their lives now have to shoulder the costs themselves. Worse, those who work for a living and do not qualify for grants suffer the most. From my experience they are the better students.

 

In the early 1970s tuition at the University of New Orleans was $121 per semester. Corrected for inflation that amounts to about $738 today. Current tuition for UNO students is $3,696.00 per semester. Using today’s numbers that accounts for a 500% increase in tuition and fees.

The net result of this process has been diminishing numbers of students attending colleges because they simply cannot afford it. This is occurring when the work place requires a more highly educated pool of laborers. Louisiana is falling way behind the rest of the nation and the world because of misguided decisions on the part of state government. If you don’t qualify for TOPS or Pell Grants, you cannot afford college. Without college Louisiana workers are unemployable.

How successful has the legislative interference in higher education been for Louisiana? This article will discuss two, the LEAP test and TOPS. The GRAD Act is a disaster deserving its own space.

The TOPS program is tied directly to the LEAP tests, GPA grade averages, and ACT scores. TOPS requires students to take a TOPS Core Curriculum in order to qualify for the grant. Presently, TOPS costs the state $139 million per year.

First let us discuss the LEAP test. Louisiana has persisted in administering the LEAP test to high school students assuming that by so doing it can guarantee a certain level of achievement among high school graduates. I mention this because it all ties together.

If indeed the LEAP test certified that Louisiana students had achieved a 12th grade level of education prior to graduation from high school, how does one explain the high enrollment in Developmental Courses when they enter college?

According to the “TOPS Report: Analysis of the TOPS Program from 2003-1012” of the 2009-2010 freshmen cohort entering college for the first time 42% who completed the TOPS Core Curriculum had to take Developmental Courses. Of those who did not complete the TOPS Core Curriculum, 90% were required to take Developmental Courses. How is this possible if they passed the LEAP test?

Since a vast number of entering college students who passed the much heralded LEAP exit test were required to take Developmental Courses in college, doesn’t this invalidate the value of the LEAP test itself. The published positive results are obviously a lie!

Now for TOPS. To qualify for the basic TOPs Award students must pass the LEAP Test, maintain a 2.5 GPA (Grade Point Average), and receive at least a 20 in their ACT. Once entering college they must maintain 24 credit hours per year and the required GPA.

TOPS covers most expenses for college students and it is expensive for the state. Awards are cancelled when students fail to maintain full-time and continuous enrollment and/or their GPA falls below required levels.

The problem…34% of TOPS recipients had their award canceled between the years 2003-2012. If on average the state pays $139 million per year for TOPS; that means that $47 million per year goes to students who never finish. That adds up to $470 million in lost investment over the period covered by the study. Furthermore, 12% lost their award in the first year. This is a waste of tax payer money.

Perhaps, the best way to handle TOPS is not to make it an award but a loan guarantee. If a student fulfills the TOPS requirements TOPS covers the expenses. If a student drops out, through failing courses or dropping out of classes they pay the loan. Louisiana only supports success, not drinking and partying, nor lack of enterprise. Under those circumstances it becomes a repayable loan. Furthermore, the requirements should be raised academically to insure the investment of tax payers.

Following this formula would open the door for TOPS investment in “non-traditional” students. These are the working adults who enter colleges and universities to improve their lives. The vast majority of these students do very well and often endure the additional burden of juggling jobs and families. Yet, they seldom receive any financial support unless destitute. Why? Are they not deserving and a better financial risk? TOPS savings could be earmarked to these students.

The legislature’s and the governor’s attempts to improve education in Louisiana have failed. The added complication of Core Curriculum will prove just another disaster. Leave education to educators. Sadly, it has become a realm for politicians who have disrupted something they know little about. Politics and education make a bad couple.

Louisiana is in a financial squeeze, everyone knows it. Thus, we have to make better use of the resources we have. Financial incentives to businesses have to be reconsidered; generous retirement packages for elected officials has to be reconsidered, (especially for those who commit crimes while in office); generous entitlement programs have to be reconsidered; cutting higher education has to be reconsidered; non-productive assessment programs have to be reconsidered, the structure of TOPS awards has to be reconsidered; and raising the cost of education on those who can least afford it has to be reconsidered.

Louisiana is in a crisis. The state has to put everything on the table in order to solve our fiscal problems. In the process, however, we cannot sacrifice the economic engine for future development…an educated population… to achieve short term financial gains. We need a sober review of everything while keeping a focused eye on the future.

Louisiana must support education! It is the foundation of economic development and an intelligent citizenry.

Ron Chapman is an award-winning columnist, college professor and businessman.  He lives in Chalmette, La.

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