A legislatively formed education commission and college officials discussed Thursday different ways to cap and toughen the standards for merit-based TOPS college scholarships and shift more funds toward need-based financial aid.

The 18-member Governance Commission for higher education focused on the state’s college tuition and aid policies Thursday. College officials and education experts frequently said Louisiana needs changes.

“The bottom line … it’s not a pretty picture,” said David Longanecker, president of the Colorado-based Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Longanecker advised the commission to push to make the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students — TOPS — for “exceptional” students and not just good ones, then reallocate some of those dollars to more need-based financial aid or some combination for good, but lower-income students.

“It’s very interesting — poorer states prefer merit programs,” Longanecker said. “Go figure.”

Louisiana is spending $154 million on TOPS this academic year, compared to $26.4 million for the state’s need-based GO Grants.

Because of the flat funding and more students getting GO Grants, the value of the annual award was decreased from $2,000 to $1,000.

The Governance Commission is the result of House Concurrent Resolution 184, approved in June as a compromise after legislation failed that would have eliminated the state’s college boards and systems and formed a merged higher education super board.

The commission is expected to focus more on higher education governance structure next month before beginning to make formal recommendations to the Legislature in November.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said TOPS is here to stay. But scholarship it may need to be tweaked and capped. State funding to TOPS increases with every tuition hike.

“I think there’s a way to have our cake and eat it too,” Purcell said, noting that other states like Georgia have been financially forced to cap their merit programs.

Larry Tremblay, Louisiana Board of Regents interim deputy commissioner for academic and student support, said students just want to know what they can afford.

“The student doesn’t really care what the tuition is and what the financial aid is,” Tremblay said. “What the student wants to know is, ‘Can I afford to go to college?’”

Just having low tuition does not work, Longanecker said, because it does not account for the true cost of college and many lower-income students cannot afford it.

LSU, for instance, costs $6,350 in tuition and fees, but the university estimates the total cost of attendance per year at about $23,000 when counting tuition, housing, textbooks, meals, transportation and other costs.

Longanecker said “low tuition” and “affordable tuition” are very different things. Most states increase tuition costs and offer more in-state financial aid, partly so students and colleges can maximize the amount of federal aid they receive.

“You’re under-priced for the value your students are receiving,” Longanecker said. “Either that or everyone isn’t as smart as you.”

As an example of what to do with higher tuition, he cited the Oklahoma Promise program of a state guaranteeing free tuition to early high school students whose families make less than $50,000 a year if the students take a high school curriculum with appropriate rigor and graduate with adequate grades.

LSU System President John Lombardi said colleges should get more freedom to operate and to raise tuition in the free market more like private colleges, even if it means some “fail.”

Lombardi said colleges essentially “buy quality” when it comes to students, whether it is a top academic student, a musician or a student-athlete through recruitment and scholarships.

But some schools “end up overpaying” in recruitment with no money left over for need-based aid, he said.

“You want to recruit high-quality students, but you don’t want to assume all high-quality students are rich,” Lombardi said.

State government and colleges must work together to “guarantee” that 90 percent of a good, needy student’s total cost of attendance is covered through institutional, state and federal aid combinations, he said.

If a potential student “can walk on water,” Lombardi said, then you can find even more institutional aid for him.