BATON ROUGE — State officials are trying to figure out how to remedy a decline in TOPS scholarship participation throughout the state.
The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, known as TOPS, is a merit-based scholarship funded by the state. The program offers scholarships to Louisiana residents attending public colleges, universities or vocational schools in the state.
Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s commissioner on higher education, spoke to the House Committee on Appropriations Thursday about the declining participation numbers.
As the number of high school graduates in the state has declined, so has the number of eligible TOPS recipients, Reed said. Acceptance rates for TOPS scholarship have also seen a decline, she said.
For those who were eligible and did not use TOPS last year, 12.9 percent of the students missed the one-year deadline to accept their TOPS scholarship, according to Reed, and 56.8 percent enrolled at a school part-time. TOPS does not cover part-time enrollment.
Fourteen percent of the eligible students enrolled at a school out of state, Reed said. But 15 percent of students — 8,000 TOPS eligible students — did not go anywhere.
“They're not in the national database,” Reed said. “They're not in our state's database. And so we have to continue to ask the question: What is happening in terms of talent development? And how do we reach these students?”
Reed said the declining participation is particularly concerning due to the large number of students who are eligible for the scholarships but still choose to not use it.
State Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, asked if the declining numbers were correlated to a lack of face-to-face instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Reed and Sujuan Boutté, executive director for the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, there has been a continuous decline in participation since before the pandemic started.
Among the various types of awards, Boutté said, the TOPS Tech award, which provides scholarships for students to attend a vocational or technical school, has the highest percentage of eligible recipients not appearing on records. The percentage of students not showing up on records decreases as the requirements for each scholarship increases, which Boutté attributed to students’ preparedness to attend a post-secondary institution.
“Where we're checking is — did those students go straight to work? … We are seeing those greater trends for those that were enrolled part-time, those that missed the deadline. Those are your most affected students,” Boutté said.
Other states are luring TOPS eligible students with incentives like bigger scholarships and better financial aid, Reed noted.
Reed emphasized the importance of communication and outreach, especially in high school, to ensure students are aware of the program.
“We've got to meet students where they are, and make sure that they know that there are opportunities for them to pursue education,” Reed said.