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Graduates cheer as their college of instruction is announced and asked to stand during Southern University's graduation ceremony Friday morning in the F.G. Clark Activity Center on campus.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

Now that the wicked weather has passed, Louisiana this week shifts focus to the financial storm threatening to swamp TOPS, the popular grants that keep public colleges and universities nearly free for students with modest academic achievements.

Approaching its 20th birthday, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students has replaced the homestead exemption as the “touch at your own peril” issue for Louisiana politicians.

Yet, costs have ballooned large enough to endanger the incentive to keep the state’s best and brightest in Louisiana.

The number of recipients has more than doubled from 23,561 students in 1998 to 51,609 at the beginning of school last fall.

TOPS is expected to cost more than $290 million this year. That’s about 9 percent of the $3.4 billion that legislators have the discretion to use to balance the state’s budget, which right now is expected to be more than $1 billion shy on July 1.

Lawmakers have been occasionally successful at tweaking TOPS over the years; but fearful of voter backlash, the Legislature has resisted substantive changes.

So, a task force of legislative champions begins on Wednesday its quest to protect Louisiana’s foremost entitlement under heaven from the financial Grendel. (Apologies to the unknown Anglo-Saxon author of Beowulf.)

No doubt the task force will have plenty of ideas to vet. But most have failed to win enough legislative support in the past. For instance, an effort to require a higher than 2.5 grade-point average to qualify failed, ignobly, in the legislative session earlier this year.

Tulane’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives recommends making TOPS more needs-based. More than 40 percent of the recipients come from families making $100,000 or more in a state where only 16 percent of the households make more than $50,000 annually.

The ideas of the higher education administrators are more in the weeds, more substantive, and more controversial.

In particular, they’re concerned budget architects will revert to an accounting trick that during the Jindal years paid for TOPS largely out a pool of money set aside in the executive budget. The maneuver displaced money for higher education that made the cuts seem less onerous than they really were.

From July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2017, state taxpayer support dropped $731 million, or about 53 percent. To cover the loss of that money, colleges and universities were allowed, under special conditions, to raise tuition and fees on students by 111 percent. This shifted the responsibility from taxpayers, who once shouldered 61 percent of the costs of running a university, to the students, who now pay about 72 percent.

The thought was that the schools would get their state money via TOPS paying for tuition rather than directly from the state treasury.

Here’s the rub. Only 24 percent of Louisiana college students received TOPS in 2016. That means the burden of covering the daily bills fell on students paying their own way, most of whom are from families making less than $100,000 a year.

“They cut us to fund TOPS, that’s really it in a nutshell,” said LSU President F. King Alexander. “I don’t think anybody is comfortable with that dynamic.”

For this fiscal year, lawmakers reversed the nine-year tide of cuts by approving a budget that was the same as last year. They also paid for TOPS directly rather than through money set aside for classroom instruction, he said.

But with the state facing an estimated deficit well north of $1 billion, college officials fear legislators will fall back on old ways. Paying for TOPS out of higher education’s budget still gives the impression for the uninitiated that the cuts aren’t so bad.

“I understand totally where they’re coming from,” Barry Erwin said of higher ed officialdom. But the head of the Council For A Better Louisiana, a Baton Rouge government policy think tank, says it’s tangled in semantics.

“We talk to a lot of legislators and I can tell you they feel their support of TOPS, a scholarship program, is the same thing as supporting higher education as an institution,” Erwin said. “That’s the reality of it.”

Erwin, however, remains hopeful that the exercise will open a conversation about how best to educate the state’s next generation. Louisiana has long kept its colleges and universities accessible to a population that, on average, makes less money than the rest of the nation.

“If the goal is to provide free tuition for as many people as possible, that’s one thing,” Erwin said. “If you really want TOPS to be a merit program, giving awards to students, who perform at high level, to keep them here, that’s something else altogether. We need to look at that balance.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.