Audit: TOPS canceled for 44 percent of recipients

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - More than 44 percent of the Louisiana students who received scholarships from the state's TOPS program over a seven-year period had their awards canceled for one reason or another, according to a state audit released Monday.

The audit covered the academic years 2002-2003 through 2008-2009. It found 54 percent of students who first got TOPS awards in fall terms of those academic years went on to receive the full award. Another 1.6 percent is still receiving the award or remain eligible.

The report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office says the state spent $165 million in TOPS awards for the more than 42,000 students whose awards were eventually canceled.

Administrators responding to the audit said the statistics don't mean the money wasn't well spent, nor does it diminish the value of the TOPS program.

"Over 80% of the money paid for TOPS awards went to students who completed the TOPS program," Melanie Amrhein, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, said in a letter accompanying the audit report. She added that 74 percent of TOPS recipients graduate from college within six years.

TOPS awards can be cancelled for reasons including not maintaining a required grade point average, leaving school for one reason or another or failing to take the required number of course hours. Amrhein's letter said most of the cancelled awards were lost by students who failed to maintain enough credit hours but still had good grades.

"Most of these students lost their TOPS award simply due to withdrawing from one or more courses and yet they still achieved and maintained high academic success," the letter said.

The audit itself noted that 25 percent of TOPS recipients who graduated from Louisiana public colleges during the period measured in the audit graduated after losing their awards.

TOPS, also known as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, has grown in popularity and in its cost to the state since it was first funded in 1998. The program pays tuition for in-state public colleges to Louisiana high school graduates who meet certain grade point averages and college entrance test score requirements: at least a 2.5 GPA and a 20 on the ACT. The awards also can be used to defray the cost of tuition at in-state private colleges.

Legislators have consistently resisted calls to tie awards to financial need or cap the cost of the program.

The audit said Louisiana has spent approximately $1.57 billion on the TOPS program from fiscal year 1999 to 2012. It said the cost of the program has grown from $53.4 million in fiscal year 1999 to $166.9 million in fiscal year 2012.

"Prior to TOPS there was little incentive for high schools to offer and for the average student to take rigorous college preparatory courses," Amrhein's letter said. "Now all high schools offer the TOPS academic core curriculum courses and most students attempt to complete the TOPS academic core and the parents are demanding it."

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)