Jindal: No need to cap TOPS

Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks Thursday to the press about taxes and TOPS. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by ADAM LAU -- Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks Thursday to the press about taxes and TOPS.

A plan to rein in the cost of TOPS, the state’s merit-based college scholarship, appears doomed at the State Capitol before debate over the program could begin in earnest.

Because much of the money for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students comes from the state general fund and higher education officials are seeking more authority to raise tuition, many legislators said they were open to finding a way to better control the program’s steadily rising costs. Senate Bill 83 would cap the popular merit-based scholarship at current tuition levels plus 10 percent.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said Thursday he would not sign legislation that limited TOPS awards. The governor called TOPS a good investment for the state.

“I don’t see any need to cap TOPS,” Jindal said. “I think the reality is, it leads to more kids studying in Louisiana and more kids staying in the state. It leads to more kids going to college and it leads to better retention and graduation rates.”

Since its inception nearly 25 years ago, the TOPS has paid tuition and some fees for close to 620,000 Louisiana high school students, who met certain academic benchmarks and attended in-state colleges and universities.

The program has been widely popular with the public, growing from 18,000 students in 1998 to 45,000 students last year. Consequently, a majority of legislators passing through the State Capitol over the past several decades have been reluctant to tweak it.

The program’s costs have risen from about $780,000 in 1989 to $168 million this fiscal year. One of the state’s accounting offices, the House Fiscal Division, projects the program to cost the state $340 million during the 2017-18 fiscal year as tuition keeps rising.

The few legislators who have raised concerns over the program’s ever increasing price tag have seen their bills die decisively year-after-year.

But this year was supposed to be different. A number of legislators said they were open to adjusting the program or exploring ways to get a handle on its costs.

Before the April 8 start of the legislative session, House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, expressed his support for limiting the cost of the program.

“We’re going to have to find a way, to realistically find a way, to put a cap on TOPS,” Kleckley told reporters during an April 3 news conference.

But, after hearing of the governor’s position, Kleckley walked back his earlier statement. “I don’t think we should cap it. I think cap is probably too strong a word. But I think we can find a better way to manage TOPS,” Kleckley said Thursday.

State Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, is sponsoring SB83. He called this year the opportune time to address TOPS as other legislators have filed bills that would allow the state’s four public higher education management boards to set tuition without legislative approval. He said the combination of bills would address costs while making schools price their programs more competitively.

The proposed tuition cap in SB83 would be tied to a national higher education index meaning that as tuition costs rise around the country, Louisiana’s higher education leaders would have the opportunity to come to the Legislature every two years to get approval to raise the cap.

In the meantime, capping TOPS would force schools to price their programs at or very near the same price as the award, Morrish said.

“The bottom line is that if we cap TOPS, colleges are going to have to pay attention to it,” Morrish said earlier this week. “TOPS is too important to not fund it in some way, but we may not be able to fund it 100 percent.”

Messages left on Morrish’s phone late Thursday were not immediately returned.

State Commissioner of Education Jim Purcell said Wednesday that SB83 is a step in the right direction considering other states have had trouble maintaining similar programs.

Arkansas, for instance delivers it’s scholarship program on a sliding scale, where freshmen get less money than seniors, but all eligible students get some tuition relief, he said.

Other states tie their scholarship programs to specific funds such as state lotteries, so awards are based on the amount of money available. A cap, Purcell said, would preserve TOPS while reining in its runaway growth.

Barry Erwin, president of the lobbying group Council for a Better Louisiana, said Wednesday that controlling the cost of TOPS has taken on added significance in the current climate where state budget cuts have driven up the cost of tuition.

“When you increase tuition, you have to increase the price of TOPS,” Erwin said. “I don’t think anybody has a problem with TOPS, it’s just an issue of affordability.”