TOPS standards revamp legislation fails in La. Senate _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, watches Monday during a vote on his legislation to revamp eligibility for TOPS.

The state Senate rejected legislation Monday night that would have raised the eligibility requirements for TOPS, Louisiana’s merit-based college tuition program.

But ongoing discussions about the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students signal a desire by some in the Legislature to tighten the program’s costs to the state, potentially leaving parents and other assistance programs to take on more of the burden.

“There needs to be more efforts to tinker with the TOPS program,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, who sponsored the bill voted down Monday as well as two others heading to the Senate floor for debate.

Donahue said TOPS, which is considered one of the most generous state-based college tuition assistance programs in the country, is ballooning beyond the state’s means, due partly to a combination of the program’s growing popularity and increases in college tuition.

TOPS will cost the state an estimated $250 million next year and $387 million by the 2018-19 school year, according to the state’s Legislative Fiscal Office. That’s up from about $40 million in the late 1990s.

Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, said legislators have been wrestling for years with “a very noble attempt to take on a difficult subject matter.”

“The challenge is, how do you put a handle on this?” Crowe said.

The program pays tuition and some fees for students who meet and maintain certain academic requirements, which Donahue’s legislation sought to raise slightly. Since its creation, TOPS has paid for more than 620,000 Louisiana high school students to attend in-state colleges and universities. About 47,000 students currently are receiving TOPS funds.

Other revamps have been proposed, but Senate Bill 520, which failed in a 23-16 vote, would have raised the minimum high school grade-point average to receive TOPS from 2.5 to 2.75 and ACT score from 20 to 21 for students beginning with the 2017-18 graduating class.

“I think we will allow students to have a higher goal to shoot for,” Donahue argued. “Quite a few of them would raise their standards.”

The bill would have eliminated about 3,600 people from TOPS, he said, saving the state an estimated $26 million. Of that, 25 percent would have gone back to Louisiana’s Go Grant, which is a needs-based scholarship.

Several senators spoke out against the proposal, saying the outcome would be that fewer students would receive TOPS.

“They know that we’re going to lose a lot of students; that’s why they’re calculating savings,” Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said of the SB520 supporters’ intent.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said she objected to the bill because she doesn’t believe that ACT score is reflective of achievement in college.

“Not one person has said because you get a lower ACT score, your likelihood of success is less,” she said.

But even lawmakers who opposed the changes to TOPS in SB520 repeatedly expressed a desire to revisit potential changes to the program next year.

“Let’s find another solution,” Thompson argued. “Let’s look at it again next year.”

Thompson said he worries legislators are taking the wrong approach, focusing only on costs and not on Louisiana’s education.

“It’s a shame we can’t put even more in there,” he said.

Before Senate Bill 520 was voted down, the Senate adopted an amendment that would have converted TOPS to a student loan, forgiven if students keep their eligibility during their first year of college.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said he thought that change would help curb costs by forcing students who don’t make it past their first year of college to repay the state.

“What (TOPS) was not meant to do is provide a year of educational vacation,” said Morrell, who sponsored the amendment. “That first year is not a party.”

A report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office last year showed that 44 percent of students lost their TOPS awards between 2002 and 2008, and more than half of those lost the scholarship during the first year of college.

Other bills currently winding through the Legislature seek to freeze TOPS awards at their current level or potentially remove the tuition-setting authority from the Legislature.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.