Louisiana's cost to fund TOPS increasing

Three of Louisiana’s most powerful lawmakers agreed Monday that changes need to be made to TOPS, Louisiana’s college scholarship program, before it becomes too expensive for the state to maintain. One of them said nothing will change as long as the family for whom the program is named has the governor’s ear.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is set to cost the state $235 million next year and is projected to increase to more than $370 million over the next five years.

Speaking at a higher education conference, the legislators also acknowledged that changing something as popular as TOPS is difficult to sell to their colleagues in the Legislature and to voters.

State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he doesn’t know how much of an appetite, if any, legislators will have to change TOPS.

Another problem is that TOPS, in its current form, has one very strong supporter in Phyllis M. Taylor, chairwoman of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, which supports issues ranging from educational projects to law enforcement causes throughout the state.

House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, said Gov. Bobby Jindal won’t support any changes to TOPS unless Phyllis Taylor agrees.

“Ms. Taylor has the ear of the governor,” Carter said, adding that the issue might get more traction when a new governor takes office in January 2016.

“We have to find a governor that prioritizes higher education,” Carter said. “The governor is the key … we have an opportunity as a group to make sure the candidates who run for governor list higher education as a top priority.”

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley agreed that the growth of TOPS from about $40 million in the late 1990s to $217 million this fiscal year isn’t something the state can pay for very much longer.

“We’ve got to find a better way to manage it,” said Kleckley, R-Lake Charles. “If we don’t do something, it won’t be sustainable.”

But any changes to TOPS have to be phased in gradually, so as not to hurt current college students or high school students on the verge of going to college, Kleckley added.

Overhauling TOPS is an idea that starts to pop up around this time every year. A few weeks before the Legislature goes into session, lawmakers say it’s time to get serious about making changes to TOPS.

So bills get filed, the Taylor Foundation unleashes its lobbyist on the State Capitol and the effort fizzles and dies.

Maybe the largest obstacle to changing TOPS is how many families it helps. The program pays tuition and some fees to Louisiana students who graduate high school with at least a 2.5 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale. Students also must score at least a 20 on the ACT standardized test, in which the top score is 36, or the equivalent on the SAT.

The standards are much more modest than for similar programs in other states.

The scholarship benefitted about 18,000 in 1998, its first year. More than 45,000 students can claim to be TOPS recipients this year.

Louisiana oil man Patrick Taylor, the late husband of Phyllis Taylor, came up with an early incarnation of TOPS in 1988, when he helped several New Orleans area students go to college. The Legislature later took up the issue, crafting a series of bills that eventually became TOPS in its current form.

The problem is the cost of TOPS rises every time tuition goes up. Tuition has been rising steadily over the past several years as schools have tried to make up for $700 million in budget cuts Jindal and the Legislature have handed down over the past six years.

TOPS is also criticized for a perceived lack of accountability. The Louisiana Legislative Auditor reported that nearly half of the college students awarded TOPS scholarships between 2002 and 2008 lost their award, costing the state about $165 million.

Students can lose their awards for poor grades, for failing to take the required number of credits per semester and for not maintaining continuous full-time enrollment, but they don’t have to pay the money back.

Legislators have tried a number of different fixes to control costs, including capping the amount of money each student can get as part of the TOPS award, to raising the scholarship’s academic requirements — essentially reducing the number of students eligible to receive the award.

The governor, however, has been prolific in killing those ideas. This year doesn’t look to be any different.

Jindal’s staff released a statement late Monday quashing any notion the governor has changed his mind. “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,” the statement read.

The governor seems to be in line with the public on the matter of capping TOPS, but out of step on the issue of raising academic standards.

A 2013 survey of nearly 1,000 Louisiana residents conducted by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab reported that 78 percent of respondents are against reducing the total amount of money students receive from the program. But another majority — 57 percent — of the survey’s respondents support increasing the academic requirements for TOPS.