The Politics of (Not) Changing TOPS
This week, The Advocate has run a compelling series on the state of higher education in Louisiana. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. It is a great example of in-depth, data-rich reporting on a complicated set of policy issues.
One issue that keeps cropping up throughout the series is the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS). The program even got its own report in the series. The TOPS program pays tuition to in-state public colleges and universities (or a comparable amount to in-state private institutions) for Louisiana high school graduates who meet a modest set of academic requirements (2.5 grade point average, completion of a core curriculum, and an ACT score above the state average which currently means scoring at least 20).
The cost of TOPS has grown immensely since the state legislature sanctioned it in 1997. In the program’s first year, the state spent a little over $50 million for TOPS. Today, it is spending $277 million – an amount that is sure to rise with each passing year unless changes are made to the program.
These seemingly endless cost increases in an age when the state faces annual budget shortfalls has drawn the ire of fiscal hawks and other critics of the program. While a number of proposals to curb the cost of TOPS have been offered, none have been implemented.
Despite the budgetary and policy concerns, there is a cold political logic to the program's seeming invincibility.
Does the Public Want to Change TOPS?
Over the past five years, the annual Louisiana Survey (a project of the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication) has included questions gauging public support for a number of these reforms. The most recent results appear in figure 1.
There is no overwhelming groundswell of support for changing TOPS. A large majority opposes cutting the amount of the award students receive. Opinion is split over changing the program so that is provides a flat monetary award to eligible students rather than covering tuition which can increase over time. Opinion is also split on changing the program so that it only provides awards to low income families.
There is support among state residents for two of the proposed changes: 59% support raising academic requirements, and 63% support limiting the program so awards do not go to children from high income families that could otherwise afford to pay for college.
Either proposal would limit costs by reducing the number of eligible students. Interestingly, given the connection between household income and student performance in school or on the ACT, these two proposals work at cross purposes. The former would obviously impact students from high income households, while the latter would likely have disproportionate impact on students from lower earning households.
An Income Cap Might Fix Policy Problems, But It Raises Political Problems
Standing alongside fiscal hawks who question the total cost of TOPS are others who question the efficacy and fairness of giving taxpayer money to people who can already afford college.
It’s not hard to see where this concern comes from. Figure 2 plots the share of TOPS recipients across various categories of household income (blue bars) as well as the distribution of household income in the state (red bars). When the blue bar is lower than the red bar, those households are under-represented among TOPS recipients. Likewise, when the blue bar is higher than the red bar, those households are over-represented. There is a clear skew to higher earning households.
So, when polling indicates people would accept income caps on TOPS, we’re talking about lopping off some of the blue bars at the right end of the graph. A household income cap of $100,000, for example, would cut cost by trimming the number of participating students by about a third.
Seems easy, but the politics are difficult. Unsurprisingly, support for income caps drops among respondents from higher income households. These beneficiaries are unlikely to stand idly by as lawmakers tell them they'll have to start paying for their kids' tuition. A lot of political science research shows that higher income individuals are more engaged and active in politics. There is also evidence that they are more effective than lower income individuals in getting what they want out of government.
Everyone Says Take It from the Rich, but Nobody Thinks of Themselves as Rich
There is a deeper political problem in imposing household income caps on TOPS eligibility. On the face, the survey question appears to indicate the public supports these caps, but there is reason for skepticism. What, after all, does “high income” mean to the public?
The survey question does not specify an exact amount, so we cannot know for sure what people think. However, we might find some guidance in a question from the 2013 Louisiana Survey which asked: “What do you personally consider a higher earning household? Please stop me when I get to the income category that you would consider higher income.” The interviewer then read up to eight categories.
Figure 3 shows the median response broken out by respondents’ own household incomes. Basically, everyone thinks “higher income” starts somewhere above their own household income. This is true even among respondents whose household income falls between $75,000 and $99,999 (roughly the 71st to 80th percentiles of the state’s distribution of household income). These respondents think households with income of $100,000 to $149,999 or more are “higher income” (roughly the 93rd to 96th percentile).
Because the “higher income” question did not use the same response categories as the question about the respondent’s own income, it is harder to compare responses across the two questions at the highest levels of respondent household income. In the top two categories of respondent household income, the typical response for “higher income” overlapped with their own household income. So, for example, a respondent with a household income of $180,000 may think of themselves as being “higher income” or they may think "higher income" only applies to households making $245,000. It is impossible to distinguish which is the typical attitude at these income levels using these data.
Still, the overall pattern observed across the remaining income categories – that people generally think of “higher income” being someone who makes more than they do – certainly suggests that the same thing is happening in these higher income brackets as well.
If so, then no income group is prepared to take the hit and give up TOPS for their kids. Instead, they think that whoever makes more than they do should give it up.
Are You Sure Your Kid Is as Sharp as You Think He Is?
The same challenge likely plays out with respect to raising academic requirements. Sure, plenty of respondents support that in theory. But would thousands of Louisiana households really be willing to give up TOPS for their kids once they realized that those higher standards might cut them out of the deal?
About 44% of high school graduates in 2014 scored a 20 or higher on the ACT, the minimum to qualify for TOPS. Raising the minimum score from 20 to 25 would leave only 15% of high school seniors eligible. That would save the state a considerable amount of money, but it would also mean tens of thousands of families across the state would suddenly find themselves having to pay for their kids’ tuition.
Hard to Get Back What You’ve Already Given
So, a majority of the public does not back changes that they recognize as directly reducing the benefit for their own children (such as reducing the amount of the award or targeting the award to low income families), and they would likely shy away from the changes they claim to support if they found out that the proposal actually threatened their own kids’ eligibility (such as instituting income caps or raising academic standards).
It’s hard to take away a benefit. Beneficiaries like the stuff they get from government; TOPS is no exception. When government create benefit programs they do not just provide the benefit itself, they also give recipients a stake in the policy debate – motivation to participate in politics to protect their benefit. Political scientists have shown that this is especially true with universal benefit programs, which accrue to middle and upper income individuals (rather than means-tested programs that are targeted to low income individuals). The benefit gives them a focus for their political activity when it is threatened.
Efforts to change TOPS – however reasonable the motivation – will likely face this threat.