For the first time, a TOPS scholarship will not cover the cost of tuition for students attending Louisiana’s public colleges and universities.
The Louisiana Legislature on Thursday passed a budget for the upcoming school year that does not fully fund the $300 million Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. The state is funding the program at 70 percent, meaning families will end up covering the out-of-pocket difference.
For the estimated 51,000 students who will receive TOPS in the 2016-17 school year, they will, somewhat unexpectedly, be asked to pay 30 percent of their tuition, which is on top of the fees and other costs they already were expected to pay.
A full-time LSU student with TOPS will owe about $2,100 in tuition for the coming school year. A full-time Southern University student on TOPS will pay $1,490. At the University of New Orleans, TOPS students will owe $1,830, and at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, they’ll owe $1,620.
In a controversial effort to soften the blow, an amendment was passed by the Legislature that would “front load” TOPS awards to the fall semester. So instead of spreading the TOPS deficit over the fall and spring semester, students starting school in August will get full TOPS coverage for the fall semester and bear the full cut in the spring. In the spring, they’d receive only 42 percent of their tuition to make up the difference.
The measure was tied to a provision that guaranteed that TOPS would get one-third of any unexpected dollars that flowed into the state budget during the course of the fiscal year. But many legislators interpreted the combination of these two measures to be a “budget trick” intended to fool families and college students into believing TOPS could end up being fully funded.
Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, castigated supporters of the measure, calling it “smoke and mirrors” on the floor of the House before the budget ultimately was passed. Jones later formally called on Gov. John Bel Edwards to veto the language.
But Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, advocated for front-loading TOPS awards in the fall. He said the measure was merely intended to give students, who did not anticipate having to cover part of their tuition because of the TOPS cut, an extra semester to get the money together.
In a midnight news conference after the budget was passed by the Legislature, Edwards raised objections to the TOPS front-loading language but wouldn’t say whether he intended to veto it.
LSU President F. King Alexander said he was concerned the measure might create complications because students can apply for financial aid only once a year, and the measure might result in students waiting in hopes that TOPS funding later would be restored.
“It’s a roll of the dice,” he said.
He advised students to explore all their financial aid opportunities now.
“If you’re on the fence, go ahead and find out what’s available to you,” he said. He also stressed that students who already have applied for financial aid would not see a disruption in their allocation because of the legislative action.
LSU officials in recent weeks have lamented they would be disproportionately affected by the cut to TOPS because they have the highest number of TOPS students and the highest tuition in the state.
After the TOPS cut became final, the University of New Orleans sent out a recruitment email to incoming freshmen — some of whom are enrolled at LSU — to remind them that UNO is a less expensive option.
“You can still receive a quality education close to home for significantly less than other state universities,” said the mass email from UNO President John Nicklow. “The University of New Orleans is an affordable option for your future success.”
On the same day, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System announced that it would not increase tuition at any of its 13 schools, in an effort to maintain affordability to students (however, the system did raise fees for schools).
Meanwhile, LSU raised its fees at the flagship to the tune of $354 per year, and Alexander has said he expects an increase in tuition at the campus of about 5 percent for the fall.