After a five-month study, a legislative task force Wednesday opted against endorsing specific, major changes to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.

Instead, the panel will simply forward nine proposals to the full Legislature, including one that would make TOPS a $4,000 per year stipend.

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Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, chairman of the 10-member task force, said the action did not mean ideas lacked support from a majority of panel members.

"We didn't feel like 10 members of  the task force should make a decision," Morrish said after the meeting. "We want the Legislature to know."

He added, "When we started there were hundreds of issues on the table. We have narrowed them to nine, and of those nine maybe five might be controversial."

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Video via Matt Houston / LSU Manship School News Service

Whether and which proposals will take the form of bills for the 2018 regular legislative session is unclear.

Any changes would have to clear the House and Senate, and win the signature of Gov. John Bel Edwards, to take effect.

The session begins on March 12, after a likely special session later this month on Louisiana's latest financial crisis.

Edwards has said he does not favor modifications for TOPS other than to ensure it is fully funded.

About 52,000 students get TOPS, which pays for most tuition.

The state is spending about $290 million on the aid this year.

The task force has met 12 times since September, and heard hours of testimony from experts and advocates.

Other changes that will be forwarded to the Legislature would reduce or eliminate TOPS stipends if the program is cut; recommend finding a dedicated funding source for the assistance and allow certain students to get TOPS as college juniors even if they failed to  meet the requirements initially.

The task force was created after a House-passed bill to toughen TOPS requirements arrived in the Senate last year.

Senate leaders shelved that bill and said a wide-ranging study made sense first.

Morrish, who is also chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is the author of the highly-controversial effort to convert the most common form of TOPS – called TOPS Opportunity – into a $4,000 per year stipend.

The average tuition at four-year schools is $5,620, and LSU students get $7,462 from TOPS Opportunity in the current school year.

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However, that measure and others got no individual vote by the task force.

Morrish's motion to forward all nine ideas to the full Legislature won approval without discussion or dissent.

One of the nine plans that sparked arguments would revamp the little-used TOPS Tech award.

Under the plan, those students could qualify for TOPS Opportunity if he or she earned an associate degree with a GPA of at least 3.20, and quickly moved into a baccalaureate program.

Students have to earn a 17 on the ACT – which measures college readiness – for TOPS Tech compared to at least a 20 for TOPS Opportunity.

A perfect score is 36.

James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, which is named for the co-founder of TOPS, said widening access for TOPS Tech students would be an expensive mistake. "These students who do not meet the requirements, they should not get TOPS funding," Caillier told the task force.

He said about 10 percent of community college students graduate in four years and about 20 percent in six years.

But Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, one of the authors of the TOPS Tech changes, said students deserve a second chance to earns the most popular form of TOPS. "We are so focused on this program that we forget about the kids," Walsworth said.

Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, said graduation statistics can be misleading.

Henderson said last year Bossier Parish Community College graduated 1,200 students but only 108 of them counted for graduation tabulations because of the age of students and other factors.

Caillier has long said TOPS should be left alone.

"We don't need to destroy a program that works," he told the task force.

Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, disagreed.

"We cannot expect the state to sit on its hands and say it is good enough," Carter said "It is not. It is not."

One of the nine proposals is Carter's plan that would ensure full funding for the best and poorest students when TOPS is not fully funded, and reduced awards for others.

He offered a similar proposal last year that died in the House Education Committee.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.

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