More talk, but no action on state’s TOPS changes

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Louisiana’s free college tuition program called TOPS carries a hefty price tag in a state budget that has been throttled with cuts.

It is expected to cost $218 million next year and is on track to grow to an estimated $340 million within five years.

Lawmakers repeatedly say they’re worried the state can’t afford the program’s expected price escalation. Higher education leaders say the program is unsustainable on its current path. And several study panels have suggested TOPS must be tweaked to survive.

Yet, the legislative session wrapped up this month with the sole attempt to rein in TOPS snuffed out with one debate, as lawmakers were leery to make changes to a subsidy that is widely popular and strongly supported by middle-class voters.

“Right now, just letting it go on and on and on is going to definitely be the golden egg that hatches and eats all that’s left out there,” Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell told senators at one point.

It’s a difficult debate, where opponents suggest that changes to TOPS – formally the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students – could keep students from going to college, in a state where degrees beyond a high school diploma are in need.

Gov. Bobby Jindal says the program has encouraged more students to attend college and to stay in Louisiana. He has opposed attempts to cap the scholarship awards.

But the cost of TOPS grows each time colleges raise tuition rates, and colleges have been doing that more regularly as Jindal and lawmakers have stripped hundreds of millions of dollars from higher education since 2008.

In a sad twist, the state has continued to drop its spending on colleges even though the governor and lawmakers have been certain to pay for the TOPS program. They may be protecting the rights of Louisiana teenagers to go to college with free tuition, but they could also be shrinking the value of the degree students will get.

And lawmakers have listed the price tag of TOPS as one of the reasons they are reluctant to relinquish their tuition-setting authority for colleges, because they worry that if the campuses keep raising tuition, TOPS will balloon even larger.

Louisiana has paid nearly $1.6 billion on the TOPS program from the 1998-99 budget year through 2011-12, according to a recent review by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office.

The state is spending $192 million on TOPS in the fiscal year that ends June 30, and the budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year contains nearly $218 million for the program, according to the state Office for Student Financial Assistance.

The program provides scholarships to Louisiana high school students who complete a certain curriculum and who meet grade point average and college entrance test score requirements: at least a 2.5 GPA and a 20 on the ACT.

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 under the program.

TOPS is one of the most generous free college tuition programs in the country.

States with similar scholarship programs have set caps and created fixed amounts that will be paid for students, rather than let the programs’ price tags rise with tuition increases. Some states limit the tuition coverage to students based on income levels, while others require tougher academic hurdles to get the aid.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, suggested before the legislative session that lawmakers needed to find a way to control the costs of TOPS. After he got pushback, Kleckley stopped talking about program changes.

Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, sought to place limits on TOPS awards. He said he worried that without cost controls, TOPS might become too expensive for the state to maintain.

“I want the TOPS program in this state to continue to be fiscally strong and to continue to have that for our grandchildren in the future,” he said.

Several senators expressed concern about the sustainability of TOPS. Then, the Senate Education Committee deferred Morrish’s bill without objection.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.