The popular TOPS scholarships are in limbo for the next few months, and that means so are thousands of students who will be wondering about their eligibility in the fall semester.
An estimated $750 million shortfall in the state budget that begins July 1 has left the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students partially funded.
And it won’t be clear how many TOPS-eligible students will receive the award until the true budget for next year becomes clear. That might not happen until well past June or July, when a second special session is expected to be called to close the budget gap. The Legislature can’t pass revenue-raising measures in the current regular session.
In past years, students went into the new school year knowing what benchmarks they had to meet to receive TOPS, a state-funded scholarship that covers tuition for in-state students. In recent years, it’s been a 2.5 GPA in core classes and a 20 on the ACT.
Students typically find out in June before the fall semester that their TOPS awards are secured, as the state processes eligibility and financial aid requests.
But this year, when students apply for TOPS, they likely will receive a notification around June that tells them their eligibility is yet to be determined, until the funding for TOPS is known, Sujuan Boutté, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, said Tuesday.
In Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed budget for next fiscal year, starting July 1, TOPS is funded for about 20 percent of eligible students, leaving a roughly $236 million shortfall.
Under that scenario, TOPS would be available only to roughly 9,000 students out of some 57,000 who previously would have been eligible. At that level of funding, TOPS goes to high school students who earn a 28 or higher on the ACT. It also means students currently enrolled in college or a university who are TOPS-eligible may not meet the requirements for the following year.
Boutté said her office is statutorily required to account for lack of funding by cutting off ACT scores from the bottom, reducing the number of total awards given based on merit.
That means depending on how much of TOPS is restored, the eligibility could land anywhere between a minimum ACT score of 20 and 28.
But that budget was based on a $2 billion projected shortfall for the fiscal year and doesn’t yet reflect the new revenue raised in a special session earlier this year that has closed more than $1.2 billion of the gap.
Cody Wells, a spokesman for the Division of Administration that oversees budgeting for the Governor’s Office, said Tuesday that the revised budget, which reflects the tax increases from the special session, will be released April 12.
Higher education leaders and health care officials have been told that the new budget likely will call for 10 percent revenue reductions in their respective areas. But Wells said that’s not necessarily the case for the TOPS budget.
“We’re still working on that. We really have no new information on where TOPS stands at this point,” he said. “TOPS is a priority, and they’ll fund it to the extent that they can.”
If the governor’s budget next week still doesn’t reflect a fully funded TOPS, the Legislature has the power to make cuts or raise revenue to fund it in the second special session.
An expensive program for the state, TOPS is projected to cost almost $300 million next year.
Legislators and Edwards repeatedly have said they believe TOPS is a priority program worth protecting.
Edwards recently committed to calling a second special session, saying he is determined to close the budget gap.
“We are gonna come back. We’re gonna raise more revenue,” Edwards said Tuesday at a rally on the Capitol steps.