As Louisiana struggles with TOPS funding, bills to reform program pass first hurdle in Senate committee

Advocate staff photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — Incoming freshman and transfer students head to their next STRIPES activity Tuesday, August 11, 2015 on Louisiana State University’s campus.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students would undergo sweeping changes under a plan unveiled Thursday by the chairman of a legislative task force studying the issue.

The suggestions, which face huge hurdles, were offered by Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, leader of the TOPS Task Force and chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Under the plan, students who get the most common form of TOPS – called TOPS Opportunity – would get a $4,000 annual stipend, a reduction from current aid levels.

Morrish said today's funding model is antiquated. "It is in the 20th century, not the 21st century," he said.

The average annual tuition at four-year schools in Louisiana is $5,620, with LSU's higher.

TOPS is supposed to cover most tuition for students who qualify.

Morrish said he spelled out his plan to Gov. John Bel Edwards in a meeting on Wednesday.

The governor said earlier this week that, while he will review the task force report, he does not currently favor changing the program. He said he wants to fully fund TOPS, always a question amid state budget problems, including a roughly $1 billion shortfall for state services starting July 1.

The state is spending $292 million for TOPS now.

Whether the Morrish plan is even endorsed by the task force is unclear. Those decisions will be made later.

However, if it it is included in the final report winning legislative approval for the mostly untouchable TOPS would be a huge challenge.

The 2018 regular legislative session starts on March 12.

Morrish also wants to revamp the next level of TOPS – TOPS Performance – to remove the current, $400 annual stipends that go with the awards. Those students would continue to get current TOPS funding, which is based on the 2016-17 amount. That award requires a 3.0 GPA on the high school core curriculum and a 23 on the ACT, which measures college readiness.

TOPS Opportunity requires a 2.5 GPA and a 20 on the ACT. Morrish said lots of students quit taking the ACT once they score 20.

"I can certainly see students being challenged by their parents that they take the ACT as many times as they can to get to a 23 ACT where they can earn the Performance award," Morrish said.

The lawmaker wants to boost stipends from $800 annually to $1,500 for TOPS Honors students, and keep other TOPS assistance for those students at current levels.

TOPS under the microscope, but changes may be elusive

In addition, Morrish proposed creating a new category called Honors PLUS. It would be for students who earn a 4.0 GPA and 30 or above on the ACT and include $2,500 annual stipends, in addition to the regular TOPS scholarship.

"These are the students being siphoned off by our competitors in other states," he said. "These are indeed our best and brightest."

He said all of the changes would save the state about $20 million per year.

Any such revamp would be put off for several years.

Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said if Honors PLUS becomes law, lawmakers should spell out that "this is our best and brightest and we are trying to retain them."

The panel has been studying the issue for months.

"We have done our work," Morrish said. "It is time to make proposals."

State Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, said the task force should consider recommending that TOPS have a dedicated source of funding.

"The students need some predictability on whether or not the funding will be there," Foil said.

School officials often complain that it is June before students know TOPS funding levels, well beyond the time many make decisions about their college choice.

Foil said he did not have a plan on what that dedicated funding source should be.

Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, like Foil a member of the task force, said he wants to consider temporarily eliminating all the TOPS stipends when the program is not fully funded.

James said that would save $9 million per year.

Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, said he wants the panel to consider recommending his plan that died in the 2017 Legislature.

Carter favors protecting the best-performing and financially-strapped TOPS recipients if it is not fully funded. A bill to do so died last year amid concerns that other students would suffer drastic cuts in TOPS assistance under Carter's proposal.

About 52,000 students get the aid.