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.

Most states that offer college aid like the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students rely on a dedicated revenue source, a veteran of the issue said Wednesday.

But Louisiana is not on that list, and initial hopes that gambling revenue would finance the assistance never happened, said James A. Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation. The foundation is named for the founder of the scholarship.

Caillier made his comments to a 10-member legislative committee that launched a study of TOPS, and lawmakers have said ensuring long-term funding for the program is their key goal.

The panel is expected to meet five more times in September, October and November, and may recommend legislation for the 2018 regular legislative session.

TOPS pays tuition for college students who meet modest high school and college academic requirements. About 50,000 students get the assistance.

The state is spending about $290 million for TOPS, with 80 percent coming from Louisiana's general fund and 20 percent from the tobacco settlement fund. The program, which began in 1998, initially served about 23,000 students at a cost of $54 million.

TOPS is fully funded for the current academic year after being trimmed for the first time during the 2016-17 school year amid state budget problems.

Georgia finances its version of TOPS with lottery dollars.

Others with variations of the Louisiana plan include Florida, Arkansas, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee.

Caillier said funding for TOPS has to be stabilized since students spend four years in high school to meet the core curriculum requirements.

Without reliable state aid, he said, "the students will give up. Secondly, the student will go out of state."

Former state Rep. Charles McDonald, who sponsored the 1997 bill that launched TOPS, said 801,909 students have been served by the assistance.

TOPS was preceded by other college financial aid including one begun in 1989 and pushed by Taylor, who was a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors.

It was limited to students of families with incomes of less than $25,000 per year.

Caillier worked with Patrick Taylor, the late oilman who founded Louisiana's program. Caillier said the original purpose of the aid was to better prepare students for college at a time when up to 50 percent of students had to take remedial courses at the university level.

Even the U.S. Department of Justice was telling state officials that improvements had to be made, especially for minority students. "TOPS was intended to improve students chance for success in college," Caillier said.

He said that, while the program has always been merit based, it was aimed at helping students from low-income families, who made up a big share of students forced to take remedial classes in college.

McDonald, a member of the Louisiana Board of Regents, said TOPS was meant to be a merit based scholarship.

Some lawmakers contend it should be changed to focus more on financial need, not classroom performance.

Caillier said there is a wide range of misconceptions about TOPS, including comments that it finances all college costs.

He said the assistance typically pays for about 55 percent of college expenses and about one third of costs at LSU.

The most common form of TOPS is called TOPS Opportunity.

Students have to achieve at least  a 2.50 grade point average on the core curriculum, and at least a 20 on the ACT, a national test of college readiness.

A total of 49.9 percent of TOPS dollars goes to students in the University of Louisiana System and 39.6 percent to those in the LSU System, according to figures provided by the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.

The Southern University System accounts for 1.1 percent of the money.

TOPS students graduate in four years at a rate roughly double the rate for non-TOPS recipients – 31 percent to 15 percent – and about the same over six years – 62 percent to 34 percent.

Sujuan W. Boutte, executive director of LOFSA, said TOPS spending accounts for 2.7 percent of Louisiana's general fund.

Boutte also said 81 percent of TOPS recipients have earned a college degree, another credential or they are still enrolled. She said that figure does not include TOPS students who attend private schools since the state does not have an agreement to get those numbers.

The study stems, in part, from the fact that lawmakers this year offered a wide range of bills to change TOPS, including tougher GPA requirements.

Since 1997 more than 75 laws have changed TOPS out of 350 or so proposed.

A key measure approved in 2016 decoupled tuition hikes from being automatically included in TOPS awards, which is aimed at stabilizing funding.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.