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Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Baton Rouge Community College students pass in front of the school's fountain, as classes classes change Tuesday afternoon, against the backdrop of the school's Governors Building, one of the original campus buildings when the school settled into its current location, in 1998. Classes for the fall semester began Monday at BRCC.

Students earning a 20 on the ACT — who typically could use their state TOPS award to attend any four-year school in the state — would be required to use their scholarship toward a community college under a bill that squeaked through the House Education Committee.

House Bill 438 would create another level of TOPS, called TOPS Tech Transfer, that carves out the students who are barely qualifying for the typical TOPS Opportunity award with an ACT score of 20 and a 2.5 GPA. They would have to attend a two-year technical school or community college. If the students do well enough, they could transfer to a four-year institution while continuing to receive TOPS.

The change would bump the academic requirements for the typical TOPS awards up a notch. The minimum ACT score would go from a 20 to 21, and the GPA would go from a 2.5 to a 3.0.

There are roughly 55,000 students on TOPS, and according to the state’s fiscal office, only 1,041 students would fall into the narrow category created by the bill.

The House Education Committee voted, on near party lines, to advance the legislation to the full House for further consideration. It’s the only TOPS reform bill heard Wednesday that advanced toward a full vote of the Legislature.

The changes, if ultimately approved by the Legislature, wouldn’t go into effect until the 2019-20 school year, so current high school students wouldn’t be affected.

Republican Rep. Barry Ivey, of Central, said he had been working on the idea for a couple of years in hopes of addressing the number of students who receive, then lose the popular college-tuition paying Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships.

He found that many of the students who lost their TOPS awards were scoring about 20 on the ACT, the college board test many universities in the South use as criteria for enrollment.

“For many students, the prestige of a four-year degree and the allure of the college campus lifestyle is often a driving force,” Ivey said. “The intention here in forcing a student down is to take a look at all the opportunities available to them at the technical community college system.”

James A. Caillier, executive director of the Patrick Taylor Foundation, where TOPS began, came to provide information about the award but ended up criticizing the legislation.

Caillier said a student who scores a 20 on the ACT and is seeking a baccalaureate degree would be better served by starting at a four-year university, which has more rigorous coursework.

“They won’t be as academically prepared in the third and fourth years,” he said.

Ivey, who attended LSU, said he was offended at Caillier’s implication that community colleges weren’t as good.

“I take offense at disparaging our community college system,” Ivey said.

He said he’s also angered by people who question the abilities and intelligence of those who don’t receive a four-year degree.

The vote was tied, and Ivey started to say he would voluntarily defer the legislation, which essentially would keep it alive. Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry interrupted to cast the seventh and deciding vote that sent HB438 on for a vote by the full House. If approved by the House, the measure would go to the Senate for consideration.

Meanwhile, the committee heard three other bills aimed to rein in TOPS that were either rejected or deferred by the sponsor because of lack of support.

Rep. Chris Broadwater’s House Bill 279 would have staggered TOPS payments so that freshmen get only 80 percent of their tuition paid by the scholarship, sophomores 90 percent, and juniors and seniors 100 percent.

His bill would have dedicated 25 percent of the state’s savings to fund more Go Grants, which are scholarships for low-income students.

Rep. Julie Stokes’ House Bill 581 was an attempt to force TOPS students who fail or drop out to repay the awards to the state.

Another bill by Ivey, which would have increased the GPA requirements that students must maintain in college to keep TOPS from year to year, was rejected.

While the minimum GPA to receive TOPS is a 2.5, once students are enrolled in college, they need to keep only a 2.3 to continue receiving the award. Ivey suggested moving the benchmark up to 2.5 after the first year and 2.75 after the second year.

Voting in FAVOR of requiring some TOPS students to attend a two-year technical school or community college (7): Chairwoman Landry, R-Lafayette; and Reps. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma; Broadwater, R-Hammond; Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge; Julie Emerson, R-Carencro; Reid Falconer, R-Mandeville; and Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie.

Voting AGAINST HB438 (6): Vice Chairman Edward Price, D-Gonzales; and Reps. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans; Stephen Carter, R-Baton Rouge; Jeff Hall, D-Alexandria; Gene Reynolds, D-Minden; and Patricia Haynes Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

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