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LSU system president F. King Alexander walks up Victory Hill before kickoff against Syracuse, Saturday, September 23, 2017, at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

LSU is losing top students to other states because of delays in funding decisions on the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, school president F. King Alexander said Wednesday.

The state aid for tuition, known as TOPS, is fully funded for the current school year but was cut by the Legislature last year.

Alexander told the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge that students and families need to know funding levels earlier in the year, not in the spring when the Legislature typically acts.

He said LSU "took a hit"  on luring some top-flight students to campus because they got offers from other schools in January and February, before this year's TOPS funding was decided by the Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards.

"Our students and parents are held hostage until mid June," Alexander said. "Let's get TOPS settled and get it settled early."

TOPS provides a big portion of college tuition for students who meet modest academic requirements.

High school students have to earn at least a 2.5 grade point average on their high school core curriculum, and at least a 20 on the ACT, a test of college readiness, to qualify.

About 52,000 students get the assistance, which is the subject of a House-Senate task force.

TOPS costs $292 million in the current year.

Alexander said he is concerned that any savings from TOPS will be sent to the state's general fund, not to other college and university operations.

"We want to make sure the money comes back to higher education," he told the group.

Alexander, who has held his job since 2013, said while the majority of TOPS recipients stay in Louisiana after graduation others leave for job opportunities.

"If our students have the opportunity to stay in the state they will stay," he said. "We have to build Louisiana's economy."

Alexander also said LSU is making strides after 16 budget cuts since 2008.

"Most of the time I have been in front of you we have been playing defense," he said.

He said 133 new faculty members joined the campus for the fall semester and came from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other schools.

This year's influx compared to 72 or so new hires in recent years to help offset retirements by around 87 teachers, Alexander said.

"It is the first time we have been able to go across the board and replace years of attrition," he said.

Beneficiaries include the College of Engineering and STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math.

"We have the building, we have the students and now we are putting the faculty in there," Alexander said of engineering and related fields.

The LSU leader made his comments in the midst of a tumultuous start to the school year.

The campus was rocked by the death last month of a student, Maxwell Gruver, at a fraternity gathering, which attracted national attention.

Enrollment is down, and the school's 5-2 football team has had an up and down season, including a lopsided loss to Mississippi State in September and a defeat at home to Troy University.

Alexander told the group that a study by Princeton University ranked LSU 5th among SEC schools, and 14th among flagship universities, in moving students to a higher economic bracket.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.