Whom to watch as Team John Bel Edwards prepares for special legislative session _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- 2015 file photo LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander

LSU President F. King Alexander told lawmakers Wednesday he is concerned that some top students will flee LSU next fall because of unprecedented cuts to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.

In an appearance before the House Appropriations Committee, Alexander said preliminary figures show enrollment will drop 3.5 percent for the spring semester.

"It is hard to know whether that is a TOPS issue," he told lawmakers.

The long-range worry, Alexander said, is the possibility some of the school's best students will not return for the fall semester because of the uncertainty about future TOPS funding.

TOPS recipients statewide face a roughly 60 percent reduction in the aid for the spring semester, the first such cut in the popular program.

LSU has about 14,000 TOPS students, easily the most in the state.

The reductions stem from recurring state budget problems, including a new wave of troubles for the financial year that begins on July 1.

Higher education leaders are requesting a $189 million increase in state aid — $1.1 billion — including $89 million in new dollars to fully fund TOPS.

The overall request represents a 21 percent increase over current funding.

Alexander painted a bleak picture of how repeated budget cuts have affected LSU, and what more reductions will mean.

He said the school ranks 12th of 14 schools in the Southeastern Conference in per student spending and 46th nationally among flagship schools.

Alexander said about 500 LSU faculty members have left in the past nine years, including 27 assistant professors last year.

"We have become a poaching ground for many institutions," he told the committee. "Another cut to higher education furthers the dire situation we are in."

State Rep. Walt Leger III, a New Orleans Democrat and member of the committee, said the University of Alabama is seeking 300 new professors.

Alexander said it is unreasonable to think LSU could offset the TOPS reductions, which is being done at the University of New Orleans and Northwestern State University.

LSU's portion of the TOPS reduction is about $30 million of a $125 million state appropriation.

The spring reduction means TOPS recipients at LSU have to come up with $2,172 plus fees.

"This is a substantive hit," Alexander said.

About 75 percent of Louisiana students who attend LSU get TOPS.

Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Rallo said officials are considering a requirement that TOPS recipients earn 30 credit hours per academic year.

To earn TOPS, students have to have a 2.5 grade point average in high school, including required classes, and score at least a 20 on the ACT, a test of college readiness.

Under current rules, recipients have to earn at least  12 hours per semester.

Rallo said 15 credit hours per semester used to be the norm nationally.

Students who collect 12 hours per semester cannot graduate in four years, he noted.

Rallo said state aid for higher education has been roughly cut in half since it totaled about $1.5 billion in 2007-08. More reductions are possible soon as legislators navigate an expected $600 million shortfall in the current budget.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.