NEWS ANALYSIS

Effort to tweak TOPS fails

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Another legislative session, another pile of rejected bills to rework Louisiana’s free college tuition program called TOPS.
Modest eligibility changes for students four years from now were too much for senators, who voted down the idea on the Senate floor last week. On the House side, proposals to modify the program never even made it out of the education committee.
Meanwhile, the cost of the program continues to rise, growing each time tuition costs increase on the state’s college campuses. TOPS is expected to cost $250 million during the next budget year — and an estimated $387 million by 2019.
Louisiana has among the most generous tuition aid programs in the nation. The basic TOPS award covers tuition at any state public university, regardless of a student’s need or ability to pay. Higher achieving students can earn extra awards.
At $250 million, TOPS will cost more next year than the attorney general’s office, services for veterans, the insurance regulatory agency and the agriculture department — combined. It will be about half of what Louisiana spends on prisons.
The skyrocketing price tag of the nearly 20-year-old program, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, has made many lawmakers queasy, but hasn’t persuaded them to vote for adjustments so far.
Such a vote would be a strike against them with parents whose children benefit from the highly popular program.
“You don’t want to go home having voted for this,” Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, warned senators during a recent debate to raise TOPS eligibility requirements.
Maybe lawmakers also know that a realistic conversation on TOPS can’t happen while Gov. Bobby Jindal is in office.
The Republican governor opposes any efforts to cap the awards or increase eligibility standards, so passing a bill that would make changes likely wouldn’t alter the status quo, since Jindal has a veto pen.
If any action on TOPS is possible, it’s not likely until a new governor arrives in 2016. But if this legislative session is any indication, the conversation isn’t going away.
Bills to tweak the tuition program now are being sponsored by legislative leaders, like House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville. And the Senate committee that once killed bills that sought to change TOPS advanced two such measures, both by Donahue, this year.
Donahue has since conceded defeat on the efforts this year, however. Kleckley hasn’t brought his bill up for debate, with the session’s end in two weeks.
The Senate voted 23-16 against Donahue’s proposal to increase the minimum grade point average and ACT score required to get a TOPS award for future students.
Currently, to get the basic scholarship, a graduating high school student must have a 2.5 GPA on core curriculum and a 20 ACT score. Donahue’s bill would have changed that to a 2.75 GPA and a 21 ACT score. The changes would have started with high school students who graduate in the 2017-18 school year.
“It’s a small increase, raises the bar slightly. Perhaps our students will strive a little harder,” Donahue said.
Opponents argued the state shouldn’t reduce tuition assistance. They credited TOPS with helping more students get college degrees in a state that is among the poorest in the country and that has among the lowest rates of educational attainment beyond high school.
“Let’s don’t turn our back on the kids that need us in this state,” said Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi.
A few days after his defeat on that bill, Donahue announced he wouldn’t pursue his legislation to cap the amount of tuition that would be covered through a TOPS award. The bill would have allowed only for inflationary adjustments to the scholarships every two years.
“I understand the difficulty in changing TOPS,” he told senators.
But he suggested the idea could return in later years: “I think it’s something that we need to consider for the future of the state of Louisiana.”
Study groups have repeatedly suggested changes to the structure of TOPS, and higher education leaders have said they worry the program is unsustainable on its current path.
Now, those concerns are coming up more frequently at the state Capitol and from more lawmakers, suggesting the debate will continue into the next legislative session, the 2015 governor’s race and beyond.
Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.

By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press

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