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Joseph Rallo (Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG)

The chairman of the legislative task force studying TOPS said Friday his plan to overhaul the program is gaining political traction.

Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Rallo, Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System and Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said Morrish's plan has merit.

But others are lining up to squash the proposal, and Gov. John Bel Edwards has questioned the need for any changes in TOPS aside from full funding.

"I don't think this will pass," said James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, which is named for the co-founder of the college aid program.

TOPS stands for Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. About 52,000 students get the aid, which helps pay for college tuition.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, who is also chairman of the study group, proposed major changes in TOPS on Jan. 11.

The key element of the plan would make the most common form of the aid – TOPS Opportunity – a $4,000 annual stipend. 

The average annual tuition at four-year schools in Louisiana is $5,620.

Those at LSU get $7,462 from TOPS Opportunity in the current school year.

LSU officials declined comment on the program but are expected to oppose the task force's plans if it winds up being debated in the regular session of the Legislature, which begins March 12.

Morrish said he has visited with LSU President F. King Alexander and others.

"LSU has not said no," he said. "Their exact words are 'We are running the numbers,'" he said.

Morrish insisted that his proposal would win support in the Legislature, in part because it would eventually save the state about $20 million per year amid continuing budget problems.

"I believe the vast majority of the Legislature recognizes that TOPS has issues," he said.

"I think they recognize, as I have said, that it is a 20th Century model in the 21st Century, that we need to make some changes."

Morrish also wants to increase the annual award for stellar students, and create another award for the best in the state.

Under his plan, TOPS Honors students would see their annual stipends in addition to the other assistance rise from $800 per year to $1,500.

Those who get the newly-created TOPS Honors – a 4.0 grade point average and a minimum of 30 on the ACT is required – would get $2,500 in annual stipends.

Caillier said doing so would undercut a key reason for TOPS – to get minority and low-income students to take a challenging high school curriculum to qualify for the assistance. "What it really does is punishes the kids at the lower end," he said.

"We cannot support that," Caillier added. "The program is well balanced the way it is."

High school students have to earn a 2.5 GPA on their high school core curriculum, and at least a 20 on the ACT, to qualify for TOPS Opportunity.

The ACT measures college readiness.

Rallo said one problem with TOPS is the yearly question about funding levels. "If you can get a stipend and the Legislature guarantees a stipend, a lot of people might line up behind it instead of uncertainity every year," he said.

Rallo also noted that in 2017 the staff of the Board of Regents recommended changing TOPS so that freshmen recipients would get 80 percent of the traditional assistance, sophomores 90 percent and juniors and seniors 100 percent.

Henderson praised the work of the task force and said its aim is to modernize TOPS.

"But it is also important that we make it sustainable," he said.

Henderson said the Morrish plan would still leave TOPS as "one of the most lucrative state scholarship programs" in the nation.

The UL System includes nine schools, including Southeastern Louisiana University, the University of New Orleans and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. About 27,000 students – 34 percent of the total – get roughly $5,000 per year from TOPS.

Sullivan, whose system includes about 131,000 students, complimented Morrish's plan.

"The chairman of the commission has come up with a proposal that I think would be healthy for all of higher education," said Sullivan, who praised the value of TOPS.

"Frankly, I would call what is being proposed not a revamp or a blow it up and start over but more of a tweak," he said. "The idea appears to be how do we sustain TOPS long term."

The 10-member task force – five from each chamber – has been meeting since September.

The next meeting is Wednesday at 9 a.m.

The panel may wrap up it business at its Feb. 7 gathering.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.