For-profit colleges' tiny portion of TOPS safeguarded from cuts; that doesn't sit well with other universities

Every college and university, from LSU and Southern University to Delgado Community College and Tulane University, will take a hit this year as a result of the shortfall in funds budgeted for TOPS scholarships. That means these schools will scramble to cover the cost of the last 20 percent of what they expected to be reimbursed for TOPS, which for a large school like LSU means a midyear cut of $10 million.

But here’s the real salt in the wound: Private, for-profit colleges with TOPS students will be safeguarded by the state. These proprietary schools, like ITT Technical College, Louisiana Culinary Institute and beauty schools like Aveda Institute and the Shreveport-based Guy’s Academy for Hair, Skin and Nails, will get to keep all of their TOPS scholarship dollars.

For-profit schools across the nation, which are typically vocational, have been scrutinized for their high tuitions — compared with public community and technical colleges — and high debt and default rates among students. Only about 30 percent of the for-profits in Louisiana are accredited.

Sujuan W. Boutté, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, said the proprietary schools will not be asked to absorb the cut because their students make up such a small percentage of the awards.

While there are about 60 for-profit colleges across the state, only about 330 of their students are receiving the popular state-funded tuition scholarship. The total unfunded portion of their TOPS scholarships is less than $40,000 for the year, which will be absorbed by the LOSFA’s administrative offices. They make up less than 1 percent of the total price tag of TOPS for the year and the total number of students who are on TOPS.

But that still doesn’t sit well with other university leaders like LSU President F. King Alexander, who are counting every public penny being cut from them this year.

“First of all, why are they getting TOPS in the first place?” Alexander said. “Why aren’t they cut like us when we get cut and have to swallow TOPS?”

TOPS, or the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is a state-funded scholarship program that generally covers full tuition for in-state college students who meet mid-level academic benchmarks.

State lawmakers have struggled for years with the program’s ballooning cost . Last year, they allocated $265 million for TOPS, but by August the state already was projecting a shortfall for the year, saying legislators didn’t account for recent tuition hikes that would raise the cost of the program.

Last month, state officials declared the state was unable to pay the last 20 percent of what it owes to schools to cover the TOPS scholarships for the spring semester. Gov. John Bel Edwards stressed that students would not be responsible for paying back the balance of the scholarship, and instead the individual universities and colleges would take the cut.

In addition to the TOPS cut, schools are bracing for another round of midyear cuts related to the historically large $900 million state budget shortfall that legislators are working to close in the special session. In total, public colleges and universities are expecting to lose between $70 million and more than $200 million before the end of the fiscal year ending June 30.

The TOPS shortfall will cost LSU’s Baton Rouge campus about $10 million, Southern University will be shorted $303,000, the University of New Orleans will lose $986,000 and the University of Louisiana Lafayette will lose $3.5 million.

The 13 schools in Louisiana Community and Technical Colleges will be cut a total of $950,000 for the end of the year.

Even private universities and colleges like Tulane, Xavier and Loyola, whose students also receive TOPS, will be cut 20 percent of the spring award like the public institutions.

In total, there are about 3,255 TOPS recipients who go to private, nonprofit universities. In total, those private schools, which also include Dillard and Louisiana College, will be shorted $1.7 million.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/

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