Bills to change TOPS sailing through legislature; one would lock today's dollar value for future awards _lowres

Advocate staff photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — Incoming freshman and transfer students head to their next STRIPES activity Tuesday, August 11, 2015 on Louisiana State University’s campus. ORG XMIT: BAT1508121038074895

If tuition goes up at Louisiana colleges and universities in future years, for the first time, students who have the TOPS scholarship may have to pay a portion of their own tuition.

That’s the gist of Mandeville Republican Sen. Jack Donahue’s TOPS bill, which easily cleared the Senate on Wednesday and is largely expected to become law at the conclusion of the legislative session. Senate Bill 174 now makes its way to the House for consideration.

Making substantive changes to TOPS is a rare feat in the Legislature, despite a widespread desire to contain the program’s costs. But this same bill passed the Legislature last year. It was vetoed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, even though it had the support of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, the organization where the TOPS program was born.

Donahue’s bill this year is being backed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The bill, which had no opposition in the Senate, locks into place this year’s dollar values for TOPS awards. The state-funded scholarship is designed to increase as tuitions increases, which has put a tremendous strain on the state budget.

Donahue’s bill is considered a modest reform in that it doesn’t yield immediate savings to the state. Instead, it aims to contain the program’s costs while not limiting access to the program. TOPS this year is estimated to cost $320 million, but the state projects it can afford to cover the cost of about 17,400 eligible students, compared with more than 51,000 students who received the award this year.

The governor has said he expects to call a special session to address the budget shortfall and try to fully fund TOPS, among other state-provided services.

Another modest TOPS change, by state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, increases the GPA required to get the additional TOPS stipends doled out to higher-achieving students.

To get the baseline TOPS award that covers tuition, called TOPS Opportunity, students need a core GPA of 2.5 and an ACT score of 20. But students who get higher GPAs and ACT scores can qualify for $400 and $800 per year stipends, for the Performance and Honors-level awards, respectively. Both of these awards, which are differentiated by ACT scores, require a 3.0.

Claitor’s Senate Bill 329 increases the GPAs required to get the TOPS Performance award to a 3.25 and 3.5 for the Honors award.

The bill sailed through the Senate, 30-7, and now heads to the House for consideration.

In the House, Baton Rouge Rep. Barry Ivey’s House Bill 438 to divert the lowest achieving TOPS eligible-students to community colleges was met with overwhelming skepticism from his colleagues.

The bill would no longer allow students who earn a 20 on the ACT and a 2.5 GPA to use their TOPS scholarships for a university. Those students, who are the bottom rung of TOPS eligibility, would have to go to a community college for the first two years but could transfer to a four-year institution after completion and still retain coverage of their tuition. The bill effectively would have raised the criteria for the traditional TOPS award to a 21 ACT and a 2.75 GPA.

Ivey voluntarily tabled his bill.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.

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