Lawmakers asked to consider limits on TOPS program

BATON ROUGE (AP) — As the cost of Louisiana’s free college tuition program soars to $235 million next year, state lawmakers are being asked to consider whether it’s time to put the brakes on the state’s generosity to college students — or at least some limitations.

Study groups have repeatedly suggested changes to the structure of the program known as TOPS, which is on track to carry a price tag over $300 million within three years. Higher education leaders have said they worry the program is unsustainable on its current path.

But proposals to tweak TOPS can be a political minefield because the program is so popular among Louisiana parents and middle-class voters, and because it is credited with boosting college enrollment in a state struggling to improve its educational attainment levels.

Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, wants lawmakers to limit increases in the growth of the program, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.

It’s a proposal that lawmakers killed last year, and Morrish knows it’s a long-shot. But he isn’t giving up, saying that without cost controls TOPS might become too expensive for the state to maintain.

“We just don’t learn our lesson. It started at $35 million and now it’s at $235 million, and everybody says it’s not out of control. I just don’t believe that,” Morrish said.

He’ll make his pitch to lawmakers in the legislative session that begins March 10. Lawmakers also are expected to file proposals to increase the qualifications for students to get a TOPS scholarship.

Those ideas already face opposition from Gov. Bobby Jindal, who says the program has encouraged more students to attend college and to stay in Louisiana. Jindal’s opposition makes the bill even more difficult to pass.

“We think TOPS has been a great program for our kids, and we do not see any reason to cap it or change eligibility standards,” Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin said in a statement.

The price tag of TOPS grows each time colleges raise their tuition price for students, and colleges have been increasing tuition regularly as Jindal and lawmakers have stripped more than $700 million in state financing from higher education since 2008.

The program is estimated to cost $17.6 million more in the upcoming 2014-15 budget year than the nearly $218 million it costs this year. It’s projected to grow by double-digit percentages each year for at least the next five years.

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, costing Louisiana $1.8 billion since 1998.

Morrish’s bill would allow TOPS’ cost to grow by 10 percent next year and then cap increases at an inflationary rate in future years.

“I think it’s a very liberal bill, and it gives us a chance to manage the program a little bit. It doesn’t do away with it,” he said.

The Senate Education Committee killed the same bill without objection last year.

The chairman of that committee, Sen. Conrad Appel, said he thinks lawmakers need to look globally at higher education funding, considering how the state determines funding levels and measures performance, rather than focusing only on making changes to TOPS.

“I don’t like doing things piecemeal, so I think it would be premature,” said Appel, R-Metairie.

Morrish was in the Legislature when the TOPS program was created. He said he couldn’t have supported it if he had known how its costs would grow.

“I’m always asking the question, ‘Whatever happened to working your way through college?’ Or mom and dad saving to pay for it? Is this just another entitlement?” he said.

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Senate Bill 34 can be found at www.legis.la.gov