Like thousands of parents in Louisiana, Christopher Casey is worrying about what’s going to happen to TOPS.
But for Casey and his wife Jan, the stakes feel a little higher. They have 11 children — two in college now on TOPS scholarships, one at the University of New Orleans and another at Delgado Community College. The other nine kids are between the ages of 1 and 16.
That means the Caseys, who are a single-source, middle-income family living in a four-bedroom house in Metairie, could have at least two children in college at the same time for the next 20 years.
“I counted it once, and it’s 88 semesters to pay for if they all go to college,” said Christopher Casey, the house breadwinner who holds a federal government job with the Social Security Administration. “That’s a lot of semesters to pay for.”
Casey said every year, they watch the Legislature battle, and typically bat down, proposed changes to the state-funded, merit-based tuition program. But this year, the situation looks more dire than usual, he said.
“Every year, I hear talk about cutting TOPS; it is the same to me as hearing that someone is thinking about sending me a bill for several hundred thousand dollars that I cannot pay,” he said. “It is doubtful that all or most of my children could go to college without TOPS, so it would be a real life-changer.”
The popular and expensive Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is vulnerable in a variety of ways this year, giving Louisiana’s middle class an urgent call to arms as the state faces a $750 million budget shortfall for next year.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said this week the state can afford to fund only about a third of the program. Fully funding TOPS would cost more than $300 million next year, but the budget for the program includes only $110 million. About 17,400 students would receive TOPS under this scenario — down from more than 51,000 students in the current year.
Edwards and other state leaders say they hope the Legislature will come together to make necessary budget cuts or tax hikes in a special session called later this year to close the budget gap and extend TOPS to every eligible student. The Legislature is barred from taking up fiscal issues in the regular session this year.
The director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, Sujuan Boutté, said this is the first time she can recall that TOPS is starting out not fully funded for the year. It means that as of right now, the program can be available only to students with a 26 or higher on the ACT, unless funding is restored. That’s because legally, if TOPS is underfunded, the program cuts the students who are the lowest academic achievers first. The minimum ACT score to receive TOPS typically is a 20.
Because it’s unclear how the budget will shake out until a few months from now, students hoping to get or retain TOPS for the next school year — with ACT scores between 20 and 26 — won’t know if they’re included until right before school starts.
Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering more than a dozen bills that would change the eligibility or contain the costs of TOPS. At least two bills to change TOPS already are halfway through the legislative process.
Casey is 50 years old and legally blind, as he suffers from macular degeneration. He said if he ever gets to a point where he can no longer work, TOPS at least serves as a safety net so he knows his kids could still securely finance their higher education without amassing loads of debt.
Jan Casey home-schools all of the children. And both parents, who went to college in Louisiana, say they value education and being able to give their children access to higher learning opportunities. But being home schooled means the kids have to earn an even higher ACT score to qualify for TOPS.
To get the full coverage for a university tuition, students typically have to earn a 20 on the ACT, but home-schoolers have to earn a 22. Christopher Casey said the strain already is hard enough without eligibility requirements being pushed higher and higher.
TOPS is so important to the Caseys that it has contributed to their decision to stay in Louisiana.
Casey said he has twice passed on opportunities to move out of state, including after Hurricane Katrina when he was offered by his job an opportunity to “transfer to any state in the country.” He said they opted to stay in Louisiana, “because I was especially aware that moving and losing TOPS would be a bad idea for my family.”
So far, the Senate already has signed off on a bill that would lock in TOPS awards at the level they are in the upcoming school year, so if tuition increases in future years, the TOPS award could stay the same. This TOPS bill is widely seen as the most likely to become law, because it already passed last year, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.
While this is considered by many lawmakers to be a reform to the program, Casey called it the “death knell for TOPS.”
He said he foresees tuition continuing to climb and the Legislature never again voting to increase the TOPS award, putting a larger and larger burden back on families.
“By the time the difference becomes very noticeable in a few years, we will have a well-established custom of legislative inaction in place,” he said. “To the extent they take it away, they will never give it back.”
Another bill to increase the GPA requirement for the additional stipends for higher-achieving TOPS students also passed the Senate. Both bills advance to the House.
The Legislature also will hear other measures to further increase TOPS eligibility requirements and another that would address how TOPS awards are distributed in the event of a budget shortfall. Instead of giving full TOPS awards to just the higher-achieving students, it would evenly distribute partial TOPS awards to all eligible students.
Mary Casey, 18, and Steven Casey, 19 — the eldest of the bunch — are already in college because of TOPS. Bernadette Casey, 16, is the next in line and getting ready to take the ACT. She said she wants to get the highest score she can possibly get, but she knows she’s at least aiming for the minimum to get TOPS so she can have her tuition covered at Delgado or UNO like her siblings.
However, lately that score seems to be a moving target.
“I’m definitely thinking about being able to get an ACT score that’s enough to get TOPS,” she said. “I want to be able to go to college and go and get a job and get started in life.”
Jan Casey said TOPS is a program that keeps her large but close-knit family close together.
“It allows the students to stay in Louisiana and close to home,” she said. “There’s opportunities in other states and they may be tempted to leave, but I like that they can stay home and even have a career here.”