After three meetings, major questions remain on whether a legislative task force will recommend significant changes to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
The 10-member study group, called the TOPS Task Force, has collected reams of data and heard from witnesses since Sept. 8.
The widow of the founder of TOPS said Thursday her late husband would avoid any rush to make…
But if any consensus is developing on asking the full Legislature to change the program, it is hard to see.
A push earlier this year to increase the mandatory grade point average, which sparked the task force, has gotten little attention.
The volatile issue of whether TOPS should be based more on family income, not academic achievement, has only surfaced sporadically.
"From the witnesses and presentations I don't see much change occurring," said James Caillier, executive director of the Taylor Foundation, which is named after TOPS co-founder Patrick F. Taylor.
State Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennings, chairman of the task force and the Senate Education Committee, made it clear from the outset that House and Senate lawmakers might or might not recommend major changes.
Most states that offer college aid like the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students rely on …
Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, a member of the panel and sponsor of the bill earlier this year to boost the required GPA, is hoping it happens.
The push to toughen academic standards for TOPS recipients died Thursday.
"At this point there has not been a lot provided to us on suggestions to help improve the program for the future," Foil said. "I am hopeful we will get some more suggestions and opinions from the public on things we can do."
The task force may meet three more times, and a report to the Legislature is possible in February.
Louisiana's political landscape is littered with failed attempts to change the Taylor Opport…
TOPS pays most of the tuition costs for students who qualify.
They do so by earning at least a 2.5 grade point average on their high school core curriculum, and at least a 20 out of 36 on the ACT, a test of college readiness.
About 52,000 students get the most common form of the aid, called TOPS Opportunity.
The state is spending $291.2 million for TOPS.
Of that, $233.3 million comes from Louisiana's general fund, which finances a wide range of state services. The other $57.8 million comes from the tobacco settlement, which 46 states entered into in 1998.
The current version of TOPS, which began in 1998, has come under scrutiny in recent years because of its costs amid state financial problems.
TOPS accounts for nearly one-fourth of what the state spends on higher education from the general fund.
Caillier said he thinks one reason the task force will recommend little in the way of changes is because of a 2016 state law that decoupled TOPS and tuition hikes.
The state froze TOPS payments at the 2015-16 level unless lawmakers vote to boost it. That means the pricetag is only expected to rise by $1.5 million in 2018-19, or 0.6 percent, according to the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.
"We have a bottom in it now,' said Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and a member of the task force.
The key topic when lawmakers meet in 2018 is how to address a "fiscal cliff" of roughly $1 billion, which could also shed light on the future of TOPS.
"It will get a little clearer after we see what the budget is going to do, how we are going to close that gap," said White, a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
Data produced for the committee provides arguments for supporters and critics of TOPS.
The number of black students who get the aid has risen 56 percent since 2003, assistance is about evenly divided among family incomes and 46 percent of TOPS eligible recipients in 2015-16 also qualified for federal Pell grants, which aids families with low to moderate incomes.
However, black students accounted for only 17 percent of the 2016 high school graduating class that landed TOPS compared to 68 percent for white students, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents.
Louisiana allocates 91.1 percent of college aid on the basis of merit compared with 8.9 percent where need is at least one factor, according to the Education Commission of the States.
The number of students who lost TOPS in their first year of college is 16.2 percent, down from 41 percent in 2004-05.
Caillier prefers that TOPS be left largely as is.
"I think this is more of an overview of the program and to make sure everyone clearly understands what is going on," he said of the study.
Foil has a different take.
"My concern is that I want us, when we finish, to be able to come up with some suggestions as a group that we can all agree on to improve the program," he said.