Resolution seeks TOPS changes study

The Louisiana Legislature didn’t push through any significant changes to the TOPS program this session, but a resolution that quietly passed on the final day instructs a long list of groups — the state Board of Regents and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, business leaders and the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options — to study the tuition assistance program and recommend changes before next year’s session.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said Wednesday that he’s not sure what will come of the group’s report, but he’s glad the future of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is being discussed.

“Maybe something really good will come of it; who knows,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to find the right model.”

Appel said he feels the legislative session ended with a lot of higher education issues still on the table.

Numerous successful bills instruct groups to study issues related to colleges and universities, examining things like suicide rates and workforce development issues.

But in action, the legislative session produced a new streamlined application process for public colleges and universities and a competitive funding source that promotes STEM fields.

It was the first time in six years that funding wasn’t cut. The nonprofit, Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently identified Louisiana as the state that had cut per pupil funding for higher education the most since 2008, but the $24.6 billion budget lawmakers gave final approval to this session increases funding for higher ed.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley hailed it as “the most successful legislative session our universities have seen in many years.”

Several debates were waged over TOPS, before the Senate ultimately dropped a push to change standards for the program.

“We can sit down and talk about TOPS and how it could be more effective and more efficient,” said Rep. Kenny Cox, a Natchitoches Democrat who authored the resolution creating study. “My whole objective is to bring all the players to the table.”

Cox opposes the proposals debated this session that would have raised standards, effectively kicking students off the program to save money. Several legislators balked at the proposal, questioning its effect on minorities and rural students.

“I’m not trying to cut anybody off,” Cox said.

Appel said he counts TOPS changes among issues, including efficiency and university success rates, that the Legislature just couldn’t get to this year.

“If there’s a disappointment, that’s it,” he said. “There are miles to go. We just have to identify the issues and set a strategy.”

TOPS, which offers tuition assistance to Louisiana students who stay in state for college, is funded through a combination of money from the state general fund and tobacco settlement proceeds.

According to a legislative audit, the state spent about $1.57 billion on TOPS between fiscal 1999 and 2012. Legislators have cited the growing cost — due to tuition increases and more students turning to the program — as reason to revamp the program and save the state money.

Appel said he thinks adjustments need to be made to protect the program for the future.

“TOPS is probably one of the most beloved programs in state government, but it has been and will continue to be attacked for its costs,” he said. “TOPS has been one of the best things we’ve done, but I do want to find a way to minimize the impact to cut down the attacks on it.”

Appel said he counts among this session’s successes efforts to build stronger relationships between the state’s two-year colleges and four-year universities.

A resolution he authored will require a study on college articulation, and a separate bill directs higher education leaders to hold quarterly meetings to talk transfer issues.

“Everybody seems on board with it,” Appel said.

Cox said he also agrees with efforts to make it easier for students to start at two-year colleges and move on to universities.

“When kids graduate from a two-year program, the four-year colleges should be right there to pick them up,” he said.

Another success Appel sees: the creation of the Gov. Bobby Jindal-backed Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy — a $40 million pool of money for which Louisiana colleges and universities can compete.

Additionally, legislation Jindal approves will require Louisiana’s public higher education institutions to develop and use a single application that prospective students could use to apply to any public college and university in the state by the 2016-2017 school year. Supporters say the legislation is meant to make applying for college easier.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.