As Louisiana struggles with TOPS funding, bills to reform program pass first hurdle in Senate committee

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.

The widow of the founder of TOPS said Thursday her late husband would avoid any rush to make the tuition aid more needs based.

"I can assure you with the greatest of confidence that he would tell you to educate all of them and find the money," Phyllis Taylor said. "That would be my answer as well."

The late Patrick F. Taylor helped launch the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which finances most college tuition for students who qualify.

Phyllis Taylor made her comments during the second meeting of the state House-Senate TOPS Task Force.

One of the key issues before the panel is whether to make the merit-based TOPS program more needs based, which means family income would play a role in how the aid is allocated.

About 50,000 students get the most common form of the assistance, which is called TOPS Opportunity.

Recipients have to earn at least a 2.5 grade point average on their high school core curriculum, and at least a 20 on the ACT, a test of college readiness, to qualify.

Rising costs of TOPS – about $290 million this year – and other issues have sparked the legislative study.

Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, a member of the task force, told Taylor that 41 percent of TOPS recipients come from families with incomes of more than $100,000 per year.

Earlier this year Carter sponsored a failed bill that would have made TOPS based in part on family incomes.

Asked for her thoughts on the issue, Taylor said the state has made big strides in assisting college students from low-income families.

"We want to motivate all the children," she told legislators.

"You can't pick and choose," she said "You have to do it for all of them."

Taylor acknowledged state budget problems have put a strain on a wide range of state services, including TOPS.

The Legislature has frozen TOPS aid at the 2015-16 level unless members vote to raise it.

Taylor said that will prevent TOPS costs from exploding. 

She said later that, in some cases, a family with a yearly income of $150,000 per year might have a greater financial need than a smaller family with an annual income of $40,000.

Any effort to put an income cap on TOPS recipients would spark controversy.

Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, a member of the task force, said former state Sen. Rick Gallot once told him he tried to put a $1 million cap on families whose children receive TOPS.

Gallot, now president of Grambling State University, told Bishop his bill got only 11 votes.

Bishop said he doubted that sentiment in the Legislature is much different today.

The first iteration of TOPS won legislative approval in 1989.

Around that time, Taylor said, Louisiana's higher education system faced huge challenges.

Most state colleges had open admission policies that only required a high school diploma for admission, and over 50 percent of freshmen had to take remedial courses.

The state's composite graduation rate was below 30 percent, she said, and freshmen retention was in the bottom quartile in the U.S.

Many high schools did not offer the core curriculum required today by TOPS recipients.

Taylor said her late husband believed that a majority of students in Louisiana "did not see college as being in their future" and that TOPS and its forerunners was meant as an incentive for all students to attend.

"This program is not considered the traditional scholarship program for the best and brightest," she said.

Louisiana has the 6th largest share of student financial aid that is merit based, according to officials of the Education Commission of the States in Denver, which addressed the task force.

The state allocates 91.1 percent of college aid on the basis of merit compared to 8.9 percent where need is at least one component.

A total of 34 states award over 50 percent of student financial aid  where income is part of the criteria.

Commission officials said many of the proposals nationally in 2017 are aimed at bolstering needs-based college aid to fill gaps in enrolling.

Emily Parker, who works for the commission, said needs-based aid is also seen as a more predictable way of offering state financial assistance rather than making a blanket promise to students.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.