The Louisiana State University (LSU) System’s president, John Lombardi, recently challenged the continuance of Louisiana’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS). Students graduating from Louisiana high schools who meet the program’s requirements, including completion of a prescribed core curriculum, gpa, and college entrance exam requirements, are eligible to attend state post-secondary institutions tution-free. Lombardi contends that given the state’s tight fiscal situation, the legislature should reconsider paying tuition for students whose parents can afford to pay it themselves. Lombardi’s issue is that state legislature has been less willing to approve significant tuition increases because they pay the tuition of TOPS students; increases in state tuition would result in significantly increased costs to the state for the TOPS program.
Lombardi recently made the comment that he has surveyed the parking lots at LSU and the cars don’t look too shabby; implying that many LSU students who the state if footing the bill for could afford to pay their own tuition. In all likelihood, he is right. Many of the students at LSU who get the TOPS award probably could afford to pay the $2500 in tuition and fees per semester. But Dr. Lombardi is missing something very important. TOPS is not merely a need-based financial aid program. I would argue that one of TOPS’ most important purposes is to keep some of Louisiana’s most talented students in the state. So yeah, Billy Davis’ mom and dad may both earn good salaries, and paying state tuition wouldn’t impose a financial hardship; but if Billy qualifies for TOPS, LSU probably isn’t his only option. TOPS may provide enough enticement for Billy to stay in-state instead of going to Flordia or Texas. As a Louisiana native I can say that we desperately need our most talented students to consider staying home. Talented young people staying in Louisiana is important for the future of the state’s higher education institutions, and the economic health of Louisiana as a whole.
While it does not appear that Lombardi’s challenges will have any impact on the future of TOPS, it is important to consider what his statements say to Louisiana students. TOPS doesn’t offer students a whole lot of money, but it says to them, “You are important, and we need you to stay home.” I contend that that is the message that Louisiana needs to continue to send to its best and brightest.