Since 2014, the Louisiana Board of Regents has been required by state law to annually report the household income data of recipients of the state’s largest and most-expensive student financial aid program, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarship. This data has shown us that since 2010-2011, the number of TOPS recipients from households with incomes of $150,000 or more has increased by 56%, while the number of recipients from the lowest-income households (earning less than $15,000) has decreased by 11% over the same time frame. Moreover, the share of recipients coming from middle-income households (earning between $50,000 and 69,999) has decreased by 17%.
Having this data at the front of mind of legislators and the general public has recently sparked conversations around how we can provide more opportunities for students who are not benefiting from the program. However, state lawmakers are considering legislation this session that would mask these disparities by stripping this data from the annual TOPS report, and the entire TOPS reporting system.
Disparities in college access and affordability
Louisiana is better off when people have access to a high-quality, affordable postsecondary education, and TOPS is an important program that helps us achieve this goal. However, there are clear disparities in who benefits from this program. Because of this data, we understand that TOPS scholarship recipients are more likely to hail from higher-income families. It is important to have this information, not to demonize these recipients who rightfully earned their scholarships on merit, but to promote continued conversations about ways to provide more opportunities for lower-income students.
More data is better than less data
This reporting requirement was added by the Legislature in 2014 by a unanimous vote in both the House and the Senate. The author of the bill, then-Senator Dale Erdey, argued that this data would simply provide lawmakers and the public with more information that the state can use in crafting policies and making decisions. More information is critical and always a good thing to have, especially when it is on a program that costs Louisiana taxpayers $300 million annually.
TOPS is a significant investment in Louisiana’s students and families, and its success is vital to Louisiana’s future. Over the years, lawmakers have asked for more data on TOPS, such as how many recipients graduate and leave the state within one to five years. This is an excellent data point to have and a great example of how and why we need to be pushing for more data on the TOPS program.
While the program is fully funded this year, Louisiana will likely be facing budget shortfalls in the years to come as the economy cools down. When that time comes, legislators will need to take a close look at the money Louisiana spends on education, and make tough decisions about which programs to fund and what should be cut. While TOPS is politically popular and unlikely to get reduced, legislators should have as much data as possible to allow for informed decisions about student financial aid. In doing so, we can work to ensure that more Louisianans pursue an education beyond high school, earn a postsecondary credential, find a well-paying job, help grow our economy, and stay in Louisiana.
– Richard Davis, Jr., State Policy Fellow