Senate to consider TOPS standards

The Louisiana Senate will debate whether to make changes to the state’s free college tuition program, TOPS, after years of complaints that it has grown too expensive amid repeated legislative reluctance to tweak it.

The Senate Education Committee agreed Thursday without objection to a rewritten version of Sen. Jack Donahue’s Senate Bill 520 to raise the minimum grade point average and ACT score required to get a TOPS award.

Proposals to increase standards or make other changes to limit the TOPS award usually get rejected in committee, often without a single objection.

But Donahue, R-Mandeville, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is one of the Legislature’s leaders, which could give the bill more of a chance to gain traction.

To get the basic TOPS scholarship that covers all tuition costs now, a graduating high school student must have a 2.5 GPA on core curriculum and a 20 ACT score. Donahue’s bill would change that to a 2.75 GPA and a 21 ACT score.

The ACT score needed to obtain additional, higher-paying TOPS awards for higher-performing students also would increase.

The changes would begin in four years, with high school students who graduate in the 2017-18 school year. Ten percent of the savings from raising eligibility standards would be used to pay for needs-based aid for college students, through Louisiana’s GO Grant program.

Supporters said the measure could help control the cost of TOPS, while encouraging students to reach higher standards.

“I do not think it’s a bridge too far if standards go up to some degree,” said Barry Erwin, president of the nonpartisan Council for A Better Louisiana.

Erwin said Louisiana has among the lowest academic requirements for similar college tuition programs across states and is among the most generous in what costs it covers.

Formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, TOPS is estimated to cost the state $235 million next year and more than $300 million within three years.

The nearly 20-year-old program is popular among Louisiana parents and middle-class voters, and it is credited with boosting college enrollment in a state struggling to improve its educational attainment levels.

Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes any efforts to cap TOPS or increase eligibility requirements.

James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, for whom the TOPS program is named, said Donahue’s proposal would disproportionately hit poor and minority students.

He said increasing the ACT score by one point would eliminate an estimated 8,000 students who otherwise would have been eligible for the program, and he said many of those would be minority students. He said toughening eligibility standards would make TOPS a program primarily for “the rich and the white kids, and I think that’s unfair.”

“This is the wrong way to go,” Caillier said.

Senators said TOPS has motivated students to reach higher achievement benchmarks.

“If we do raise the bar, I think kids will mostly meet the challenge,” said Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge.