Legislators to consider TOPS

Legislators are expected to take up a number of bills Wednesday that would make changes to the state’s popular college scholarship program known as TOPS.

State lawmakers have long talked about making changes to a program that has grown steadily from about $40 million in the late 1990s to $217 million this year.

But legislators are usually pragmatic. The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which pays tuition and some fees for students to meet certain academic requirement is extremely popular in all corners of the state.

Therefore, many people believe that a vote to make TOPS harder for students to get, is a vote against one’s own political future.

But legislators also know that the program’s rising cost is not sustainable. The price tag is set to jump to $235 million next year and is projected to increase to more than $370 million over the next five years.

In past years, lawmakers have suggested a number of possible fixes including raising the scholarship’s modest requirements — a 2.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale, and a 20 out of a possible 36 on the ACT standardized test.

Legislators have also complained about the wasted investment of students who earn TOPS but lose it for poor performance. 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 currently have to pay the money back.

In response, a number of legislators are offering TOPS bills this year, with many of them set to be debated Wednesday during a meeting of the House Education Committee.

Among the bills under consideration are:

House Bill 510 sponsored by state Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge. The bill would raise eligibility requirements to a 2.5 grade point average and an ACT score equal to the state’s average score, but no less than the current minimum score of 20.

House Bill 1009, also sponsored by Greene, would require TOPS recipients to pay a portion of their tuition up front. They would later be reimbursed semester-by-semester after having completed the term successfully.

House Bill 385 sponsored by state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Houma, would raise the minimum ACT score required for TOPS from 20 to 22. The bill would also require students to pay back TOPS money should they lose the scholarship for poor performance.

House Bill 977 sponsored by state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, would also raise the minimum academic requirements for TOPS.

House Bill 997 sponsored by state Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, would extend TOPS eligibility to students pursuing postgraduate degrees.

The House Education Committee meets at 9 a.m. Wednesday in Room 1 of the State Capitol.