Hanna Johnson, an artistic graduate of Dominican High School, had to make a major life decision in 2007. Should she go to Louisiana State University or to the internationally recognized Savannah College of Art and Design?

SCAD’s prestige trumped LSU’s, but LSU had something to offer that SCAD couldn’t match: free tuition. Because Johnson qualifies for a state scholarship called TOPS – the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students – the $21,000 or so cost of getting a bachelor’s degree from LSU would be covered by the state as long as she maintains good grades and remains a continuous, full-time student.

Her parents weighed the pros and cons and told her: “If we go with TOPS, we can afford to do some other things for you,” says Donna Barry, Johnson’s mother.

One of the “other things” was enrolling in a LSU sponsored summer session taught in London studying Shakespeare and theater and traveling to other European countries.

Johnson chose LSU.

Now she is one of 40,000 students receiving TOPS scholarships at a total cost of about $114 million a year, says Gus Wales, spokesman for Louisiana’s Office of Student Financial Assistance. Thousands more Louisiana high school students are working on TOPS eligibility.

Students earn the TOPS scholarship by taking a college preparation curriculum in high school, maintaining a C average and scoring at least 20, of a possible 36, on the American College Test, a test that measures college preparation.   

Initiated by oilman Patrick Taylor, the 19-year-old program started out as a way to encourage low-income students to take a college prep curriculum in high school. In 1998, the state legislature expanded it to include all graduates who meet certain academic requirements. The legislature sought to promote academic success and to encourage Louisiana’s “best and brightest” to attend college in Louisiana.

Not surprisingly, the program’s popularity grew. Even though parents still must pay books, fees, and living expenses, the program saves them many thousands of dollars. The greatest cost savings are for parents with more than one college-age child or children who are capable of gaining entrance to well known out-of-state schools. Many private universities cost as much as $50,000 or more annually.

Even so, the mounting cost of TOPS and its relatively low requirements for eligibility rankles some.

 One of its most outspoken critics was The Times-Picayune newspaper.

 “TOPS undeniably uses up money that could also be used to make the state’s public universities more appealing to scholars as well as students,” the newspaper says in an editorial. “A poor state like ours can’t afford to be reckless with money. Neither can it afford to let a poorly crafted scholarship program dictate the fate of colleges and universities.”

The newspaper wrote these words in 2005 and now they seem like prophecy. In ’09, the colleges and universities face unprecedented budget shortfalls that jeopardize academic programs.

In March, when $219 million in proposed cuts to higher education were announced, Commissioner of Higher Education Sally Clausen told the Board of Regents, the state’s coordinating board for higher education, that “unless the economic conditions change for the better, higher education in Louisiana will be required to respond to a $440 million shortfall by 2012.”

Such staggering numbers and dire consequences have university officials making painful choices about programs and services, but so far TOPS doesn’t appear to be in any danger of elimination.

“There is talk about whether the state can afford TOPS,” says Karen Denby, senior policy analyst for the Board of Regents. “But TOPS has been such a benefit I think that they are doing everything they can to protect it. It seems to be doing what it was designed to do.”

In addition to the fact that cutting TOPS would likely prove unpopular with parents – i.e. many voters – who have been counting on the promised money, Board of Regents data shows that the program is achieving its goals. It is keeping some good students in Louisiana, improving college retention, boosting college entrance tests scores and helping to close the achievement gap between white students and minority students.

Students receiving TOPS scholarships stay in college at a higher rate and graduate sooner than students without TOPS, Board of Regents figures show. Moreover, more high school students are taking the advanced courses required by TOPS, even if they don’t eventually qualify for the scholarship. Increased participation in advanced classes in English, math, science and social studies are also affecting college entrance scores.

Figures show that about 60 percent of TOPS students attending four-year institutions graduate within six years, while only 25 percent of the non-TOPS students graduate within that time frame.

American College Test scores are also increasing. Even though there’s no direct correlation between the scores and TOPS, data shows that students who take advance coursework in high school do much better on the college entrance test, in some cases as much as seven points in a subject area. Because of TOPS, most high schools try to steer students to the college prep curriculum, so the scholarships, along with other recent education initiatives, are affecting the test scores.

Louisiana has long lagged the national average on the ACT test, but the gap has been narrowing. In 1996, the state’s average score was 19.4, but it’s been increasing steadily since then. In 2008, for example, the state’s composite average was 20.3, compared to 20.1 in 2007.

Students taking a college prep core curriculum scored an average of 20.9, even closer to the national average of 21.1.

“Our students are on the right track. A .2 increase “doesn’t sound like that much of a difference, but it’s not easy,” Denby says. Scores as a general rule don’t bounce around that much.”

Perhaps even more promising is the score for minority students, a group that historically scores lower than average. Louisiana’s Black students, for example, achieved the greatest gains in 2008, 17.4 compared to 17 in ’07. In this category, the state leads the national composite average of 16.9.
Education officials expect to see a continued increase in college entrance scores as more and more students take the college prep curriculum that could secure them free college tuition.

University of New Orleans Chancellor Tim Ryan says that the increasing test scores have had a positive impact on UNO. “The students are better prepared, and they are more likely to be successful,” Ryan says. “It’s clearly a positive trend and we expect it to continue.”