Louisiana student loan debt averages $22,789 _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Students walk in the quad on LSU's campus.

Like thousands of students statewide, LSU sophomore Jason Badeaux is scrambling to come up with money for the second semester amid unprecedented state budget cuts.

The popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students was trimmed to the point that students have to come up with nearly 60 percent of what in the past they could expect from the state.

"I am having my parents help me out," said Badeaux, 19, an economics major from Alexandria.

"I hope that it will be funded in the future, and if it isn't, I have to start looking to see if there are other funding opportunities," he said.

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Roughly 50,000 other students are in the same fix, including about 14,000 at LSU alone.

LSU students have to come up with $2,172, plus fees.

Recipients at Southern University have to cover $1,447, and at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the gap is $1,573.

More student loans. Newly created campus jobs. Hunting for private scholarships. All are new options in the mix to offset what used to be politically untouchable assistance.

LSU is offering deferred payments, with half due on Dec. 8 and the remainder split into three equal payments during the spring semester.

Students also are being encouraged to fill out applications for grants and scholarships through Free Applications for Federal Student Aid.

The school has even reminded students that parents are eligible for federal assistance, called the PLUS loan program.

UL-Lafayette, which has about 7,000 TOPS students, is offering up to $1,000 for its most needy students and up to $1,400 to others through campus jobs. Payment plans have been extended from three installments to four.

Students also are being urged to take out student loans, if that is the only way to stay in school.

"We have calls from students and parents every day," said DeWayne Bowie, the school's vice president for enrollment management. "People are asking what can they do? What are the options?"

Even with the offers of assistance, many students and families are dumbfounded that it has come to this.

"For these kids to have taken these classes and then had TOPS taken away from them is unacceptable," said Tamara Simoneaux, whose daughter Lyrica Albert is a student at UL-Lafayette and plans to study law in the future.

Simoneaux said the TOPS reduction will mean her daughter has to work longer job hours and rely on financial help from her family.

The coming shortfall has been known for months.

Aware of it, the Legislature voted to delay most of the financial pain until the second semester. Students got 93 percent of their TOPS awards for the fall semester but will get just 41.8 percent for spring.

TOPS is supposed to pay for tuition for students who earn a 2.5 grade-point average in high school, including required courses, and at least a 20 on the ACT, a test of college readiness.

Backers contend that the aid encourages students to tackle rigorous classes and helps keep top-flight students in Louisiana. The program, which was authorized in 1997, has helped 291,000 students.

However, some critics call TOPS free money for middle- and upper-income earners who don't need it. Others in the Legislature have tried to trim the academic requirements for the merit-based aid or said the state needs to spend more on needs-based assistance.

The reductions continue to spark questions and comments in political circles.

LSU President F. King Alexander told a legislative committee last week that he is concerned that questions about the future of TOPS funding will drive away some of the school's best students next fall. Enrollment is down 3.5 percent for the spring semester.

Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, told the House Appropriations Committee that uncertainty about TOPS dollars is hard on students.

"It is difficult to be in our position and not fulfill that promise," Sullivan said, adding that some students are leaving four-year schools for two-year colleges because of the reductions.

Higher education leaders are asking for a 21 percent increase in state aid, including $89 million to fully fund TOPS.

TOPS aid at Southeastern Louisiana University, which has about 4,000 recipients, was cut by $6.5 million. That leaves a gap of $1,700 per TOPS student.

The school is offering payments in three installments, and the initial one can include scholarships assistance. In addition, the Southeastern Foundation is offering hardship awards for a limited number of students who have exhausted other options.

The University of New Orleans and Northwestern University were able to absorb state cuts without any impact on TOPS awards for their students.

Those schools have about 1,600 and 2,200 TOPS students, respectively.

"But there is a significant cost that is associated with this," said Northwestern President Jim Henderson. "This is a onetime thing. We are not going to be able to continue to do this."

State services face a major shortfall again in 2017, and whether full TOPS funding will resume is unclear.

On Jan. 1, Henderson becomes president of the University of Louisiana system, which includes UL-Lafayette, Southeastern and other schools.

"The real answer comes from the Legislature." he said. "And we have got to find a way to uphold the promise that we made to these students."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.