A panel charged with coming up with ways the state can fortify its popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students will formally reveal its slate of recommendations Wednesday, Feb. 7.

The TOPS task force met Wednesday to discuss ideas formed after months of review, but no vote was taken on which, if any, will be sent to the full state Legislature for consideration.

State Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennings, who is chairman of the task force, said he wanted to give members a chance to contemplate the proposals and receive public feedback.

During the hearing that stretched beyond two hours Wednesday, lawmakers still had key disagreements on proposals and what ultimately should be TOPS' priority. Sentiment over the program has long been torn between those who view it as aid for needy students versus those who say it should prioritize better performing students, regardless of income.

The state Legislature would have to ultimately agree to any changes.

"These are just some proposals we're going to talk about," said Sen. Bodi White, R-Central. "Anything we do, there has to be legislation proposed and passed."

Among the potential recommendations that were discussed are measures that aim to encourage lower-performing students to attend less costly community college programs before transferring to four-year universities and proposals that would tweak how much money students get based on their academic achievements.

Also discussed was Morrish's preferred plan, which would create merit-based tiers to determine the size of grant awards students receive. Under his proposal, the state could save about $20 million annually on TOPS.

"I think the most important thing is to recognize those are the best and brightest students. They're regularly being picked off by Baylor and the University of Alabama and others," he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, has proposed that the Legislature split the difference: When cuts are made to TOPS funding, give preference to students whose families make below $60,000 a year and to students who scored higher than a 30 on the ACT standardized test.

"I don't want to lose those kids to go to Texas or Alabama or any other states, but at the same time, I don't want to hurt those kids who come from a tough financial background," he said.

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TOPS was created as an incentive to keep Louisiana high schoolers, who meet certain benchmarks, in the state when they go to college. To qualify, they have to take an outlined high school curriculum and earn at least a 2.5 GPA, as well as score at least a 20 on the standardized ACT test — the state average.

The TOPS review comes amid recent funding threats and the program's ballooning costs to the state, to about $300 million today.

TOPS awards were drastically scaled back in 2016 for the first time in the program's history as legislators attempted to shore up the state budget.

Gov. John Bel Edwards' executive budget proposal released last week would eliminate state funding for TOPS because of a looming $1 billion budget shortfall. Edwards, a Democrat, has said he prefers no changes made to the program and that it be fully funded.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.

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