James Gill: TOPS costs soar, and universities flounder

At this rate Louisiana will wind up blowing its entire higher education budget on scholarships.

Your kids will qualify for a free ride to college but will major in twiddling their thumbs. There’ll be no money to pay faculty; the campus grass will be waist high.

OK, that isn’t really going to happen. Bobby Jindal won’t be governor a year hence, and we can muddle along until then. Meanwhile, however, our universities and colleges will continue to pay the price while Jindal plays fast and loose with the fisc. The bill for the TOPs program, which pays in-state tuition for Louisiana residents, will reach some $250 million in the coming year, while academia will feel the pinch even more.

It is not all Jindal’s fault that college presidents say they may be forced to close campuses. So much of the state budget is constitutionally off-limits, when straitened times necessitate cuts, that education and health care always bear the brunt. And these times are made all the more straitened by the collapse in oil prices.

Still, the crisis has been building for years, and Jindal, having repeatedly patched a budget together with string and chewing gum, owns it. Sure, as he will doubtless be endlessly boasting on the presidential campaign trail, his anti-tax record is 100 percent. But that is no great trick if you are prepared to let government drown in red ink.

The state economy is highly dependent on its higher education system, Jindal observed a year ago when inaugurating his $40 million Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund. Its purpose, he said, was to provide money for colleges and universities, in partnership with private business, to “train our students for the jobs that are coming to Louisiana.”

It was about time, for the higher education budget has been cut by $700 million since Jindal took office in 2008. WISE would be “one of the important legacies of my administration,” he allowed.

Whatever Jindal is finally remembered for, it won’t be WISE, which is now due to be scrapped as the administration prepares for another round of higher education budget cuts, this time expected to total some $400 million. It could hardly be much less, for the state’s overall budget shortfall is projected at $1.6 billion.

Some legislators wonder whether in such circumstances Jindal’s decision to increase the TOPS appropriation by another $34 million for next year is altogether wise. But he has resisted all moves to raise eligibility standards, cap grants or otherwise rein in the burgeoning costs, and will clearly continue to do so.

TOPS pays tuition at state colleges and trade schools, while students may use scholarship money to meet some of the costs at private institutions. There is no means test, and no great academic prowess is required to qualify; an ACT score of 20, and a GPA of 2.5 will do it. Kids lose their grants if they fail to keep their grades up at college, and more than 40 percent fall by the wayside, with half of that number flunking out in the first year. TOPS money never has to be repaid, however.

TOPS costs rise inexorably because, every time their budgets are slashed, colleges are obliged to soften the blow by raising tuition.

According to a recent Board of Regents report, TOPS beneficiaries have an average household income of $70,000 to $99,000 a year, and 79 percent of them are white. This is quite unsurprising; a program conceived in order to keep bright and motivated kids in Louisiana is bound to benefit the haves disproportionately.

In his latest newspaper column state Treasurer John Kennedy calls TOPS a “roaring success” and opines that we “cannot afford to diminish what it does for our state.” Since Kennedy seems to spend half his time denouncing Jindal’s budgetary follies, perhaps his endorsement of TOPS carries particular weight.

Regardless, however, what TOPS does for our state will be diminished every time higher education takes a hit. There is enough money floating around Baton Rouge to keep the schools running on all cylinders, if only Jindal would, for instance, divert some of the billions squandered on tax breaks for private industry.

But Jindal says that would be the same as raising taxes, and he is determined to remain doctrinally pure. Presumably colleges and universities will offset some of the next round of cuts with more tuition increases, so TOPS costs will go up again too. Then Jindal will have his legacy.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.