TOPS benefits leave disadvantaged behind

A recent analysis by the Louisiana House fiscal office found that an increasing portion of funds allocated to Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is going toward people with higher incomes. TOPS, Louisiana’s premier state scholarship, contributes to the tuition of nearly 51,000 students. To qualify, students must earn both higher than a 20 on their ACT and a 2.5 GPA in high school. TOPS’ status, however, has become uncertain in light of proposed budget cuts. When deciding the future of these scholarships, legislators must ensure that, no matter how much the fund must be cut down, it will still benefit those who need it most.

In this year’s budgetary debates, reforming the popular initiative will be a top priority for many legislators. Nevertheless, the House fiscal office’s report underlines the major question facing the imperiled scholarship: On what basis should the funds be awarded? As it stands, TOPS, with its GPA and ACT requirements, is primarily merit-based. Though such an approach undoubtedly rewards hard-working students, it has resulted in a disproportionate allocation of TOPS funds to wealthier Louisianians.

In the past decade, the percentage of TOPS recipients from households earning more than $100,000 rose from 28.1 to 41.2 percent. Conversely, the share of TOPS recipients from households earning less than $35,000 shrank from 23.3 to 22 percent from 2005 to 2015. Not only does the current program fail to provide equitable financial support to students, but it also disadvantages poorer students by failing to provide them with the adequate resources to move upward socioeconomically.

Students from wealthier households most likely already have access to greater educational resources, which contributes to their higher academic performance and, by extension, their greater share of TOPS funds. Though the scholarship’s merit-based nature rewards achievement, it does so in a manner which exacerbates, rather than addresses, inequalities in education. Notably, TOPS’ progenitor, Patrick F. Taylor, conceived the program after witnessing the struggle of poor students in Louisiana schools, as shown by the program’s initial income cap, which was removed in 1997. As a result, the scholarship’s emphasis on assisting underprivileged youth has weakened in the last two decades.

As the legislature convenes this summer, legislators have a few options. One is to require higher standards of achievement, which risks TOPS’ further gentrification. They can, however, reinstitute the scholarship’s income cap, both narrowing its focus and ensuring the neediest have access. Despite pressing budget cuts, legislators must not renege on Taylor’s pledge to assist the state’s least fortunate.

This is an opinion article and does not reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo. Nketiah is a freshman at Newcomb-Tulane College. He can be reached at [email protected].

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