TOPS changes stall

Two bills that would allow students who have studied out of state to return to Louisiana and take advantage of a popular college scholarship program stalled Thursday in the state House Education Committee.

Both bills would make changes to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS. The program pays tuition and some fees for high school students who meet certain academic benchmarks and attend in-state schools.

House Bill 243 sponsored by state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, would extend TOPS eligibility to Louisiana high school students attending out-of-state or overseas high school programs.

George Eldredge, general counsel with the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, which oversees the TOPS program, testified that HB243 would apply to students who have been accepted at an out-of-state institution and who have at least one parent living in Louisiana.

Those students wishing to return to the state for college would have to be a Louisiana resident and score at least a 23 on the ACT standardized test — three points higher than the minimum 20 score required of students enrolled in Louisiana high schools.

Eldredge said the extended eligibility would only affect one or two students per year.

State Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, argued for the bill Thursday in the absence of Carter, who was attending a funeral.

Champagne said the bill is intended to tie up loose ends in the TOPS law and accommodate students “who slipped through the cracks.”

The bill ran into trouble as legislators questioned whether the bill required students to be American citizens, or whether it would apply to students who have never lived in Louisiana.

State Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, chided Eldredge by saying that the bill “opens a can of worms,” in that it creates a path for some students to take advantage of free tuition under the TOPS program when they have little or no connection to Louisiana.

“This invites people to send their kids to Louisiana,” Bishop said. “This is not about what TOPS was intended to do, which was about keeping our best and brightest here.”

Noting the questions raised about the bill, Champagne temporarily withdrew it from consideration.

The other piece of legislation, House Bill 612 sponsored by state Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, would extend TOPS eligibility to students from Louisiana looking to pursue a graduate degree in-state after having completed an undergraduate degree out-of-state.

TOPS was originally designed as an undergraduate scholarship program that pays eight semesters-worth of tuition and some fees for students.

The program extends to cover a portion of graduate school costs for students who finish their undergraduate degrees in less than eight semesters.

HB612 essentially would entice students who left the state after high school to return to Louisiana to pursue a graduate degree.

Greene also pulled his bill from consideration Thursday, saying he needed more time to narrow its scope.

He said he wants to tailor it so that it’s available not to all students but to the ones pursuing degrees in the health services and allied health fields — areas Louisiana needs.

Greene said he hopes to bring his bill back to the House Education Committee for consideration next week.