What We’re Saying: Just Scrap TOPS and Start Over

The state legislature has money problems and that means TOPS, the state’s tuition scholarship program, is once again on the chopping board.

We have an idea. End it—at least as it exists now.

Quite frankly, TOPS recipients are already too White and too wealthy to actually consider the program a success relative providing opportunities to the young people that need them most and serving as a bridge out of poverty. As we have said before, anyone worried about losing TOPS doesn’t really understand what it has become, how it’s really being used and by whom.

The Tuition Opportunity Program for Students, now ineffectively modeled after the efforts of the late Patrick F. Taylor, who set out on a personal mission some 30 years ago to ensure that 183 middle school students from disadvantaged backgrounds could go to college as long as they stayed out of trouble and graduated high school with a 2.5 GPA and a 17 on the ACT, no longer reflects the intent or spirit of that worthy endeavor. To be clear, poor and minority students are NOT benefiting from the largess of TOPS. So how about we just stop.

Today, TOPS Opportunity, Performance and Honors programs require ACT composites of 20, 23 and 27 respectively. It has been suggested that the minimum score be ACT score needed be raised from a 20 to a 26. The reality is that disadvantaged and mostly Black students trapped in low-performing secondary schools with limited resources aren’t the ones that benefit from TOPS. It has become a kitty for the children of the state’s middle-class and well-to-do residents. Audits and evaluations of the program bear that fact out. One report details that more than 74 percent of 2014 TOPS recipients are White and that more than 58 percent of 2013-14 graduates that enrolled in TOPS came from families with incomes of at least $70,000. In fact, nearly 20 percent reported family incomes of more than $150,000. More plainly, more than half of TOPS recipients have parents that can afford state college tuition. Moreover, students earning 3.0 or better GPAs and scoring in the mid to high 20s on the ACT can often count on some merit-based scholarships to help fund their tuition costs.

Also, the number of students from middle class and affluent households using TOPS has grown steadily over the years. While the number of students from low-income backgrounds has remained stagnate over a 10-year period, which suggests that very little has been done to increase the pool of low-income students eligible for TOPs as the requirements have grown more stringent, while students from middle-class and wealthy families continue to benefit.

We’re not surprised that the poorest students at low-performing schools aren’t getting TOPs at the same rate as well-to-do students because research repeatedly indicates that parental income and academic performance are causally related. This makes recent talk of raising the TOPS ACT requirement repulsive.

To be sure, we are not categorically opposed to college tuition assistance for deserving students that actually need the help. You want to save money on the program? End TOPS as it is, then revamp/reintroduce the program to include income limits that ensure it focuses on assisting students that meet some basic academic requirements along with having a demonstrated financial need.

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