Bill to rein in TOPS costs shelved

The Legislature’s latest attempt to do something about the rising cost of TOPS — the state’s popular college scholarship program — was shelved indefinitely Thursday to allow legislators more time to study its moving parts.

State Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, voluntarily deferred House Bill 997 to give his colleagues in the House Education Committee more time with the bill.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students pays tuition and some fees for students who meet and maintain certain academic requirements. It requires a 2.5 grade-point average and a 20 out of a possible 36 on the ACT standardized test.

In total, TOPS has paid for more than 620,000 Louisiana high school students to attend in-state colleges and universities. But as its popularity grew, so did its costs.

The price tag for TOPS has risen from about $40 million in the late 1990s to $217 million this year. Some estimates have the program growing to more than $300 million by 2016.

Those rising costs have led to numerous attempts by legislators to tweak the program.

Hunter’s legislation would require TOPS recipients to stay and work in Louisiana after graduation for increments of one year for every year they received a TOPS scholarship.

In other words, a student who had a four-year college career paid for by TOPS would have to work in Louisiana for four years after graduation.

Conversely, HB997 says a student who chooses to leave immediately after graduation is on the hook to repay the cost of TOPS for every year he fails to meet the residency requirement.

“If you take the 47,000 students who are on TOPS this year, and they all were to stay and work in Louisiana for one year postgraduation, they would generate $360 million (to the state’s economy), Hunter said. “We’re trying to offset the cost over time.”

Hunter’s bill further says that students who lose TOPS would be required to pay back the money they received. Students generally lose their TOPS scholarships for poor academic performance.

A number of lawmakers have seized on a report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office that shows 44 percent, or more than 42,000 students, lost their TOPS awards between 2002 and 2008. Most of those students — 56 percent — lost the scholarship during their first year in college.

Hunter’s bill also would extend TOPS eligibility to students pursuing postgraduate degrees and add a requirement that, in order to get the scholarship, students have to be pursuing a degree in a field beneficial to the state as defined by the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

It means that students pursuing degrees in engineering and computer science would be eligible for TOPS, while aspiring museum curators and English professors would not.

Hunter, however, said he’d be willing to back off the last requirement if it increased the likelihood his bill would pass. He also told committee members he’d take his name off the bill if it helped.

“Because of my success rate of getting bills passed, I’m willing to take my name off,” Hunter deadpanned.

HB997 was opposed by James Caillier, executive director of the Taylor Foundation — the organization TOPS is named after.

Caillier called Hunter’s bill “a gumbo bill” because of its multiple components.

He argued TOPS should be left alone because of how successful it is. Students on TOPS graduate at a higher rate than other students — 75 percent versus 69 percent at LSU — and they graduate faster, four years compared to six years, Caillier said.

Hunter’s bill is just the latest in a long line of TOPS-related bills that have run into trouble with lawmakers over the years.

Many people at the State Capitol believe the program is too popular with parents and students for legislators to make any substantive changes to it, regardless of its increasing costs.

Another attempt to rein in TOPS died last week, a continuation of a multiyear trend at the State Capitol.