Another attempt to change Louisiana’s generous TOPS scholarship has met its demise.
Gov. Bobby Jindal on Friday vetoed a bill that sought to rein in the cost of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students by ending the automatic increases in money students receive from TOPS when tuition goes up. In effect, it would have meant that the scholarships might not cover the full tuition price for future TOPS recipients, without legislative action.
“I made a promise to the students and families of this state that a TOPS scholarship would be available to every child who worked hard and met the performance criteria established by law — this legislation would renege on that promise,” Jindal said in his veto statement.
The move didn’t entirely come as a surprise. Earlier in the session, Jindal said he opposed the change.
But unlike past proposals, higher education and student leaders, as well as TOPS supporters, all backed the latest measure as it made its way through the Legislature this year.
With support from that diverse coalition, Senate Bill 48 sailed through the Senate and the House and made it further than any other significant overhaul of the program has.
Even Phyllis Taylor, who is close to Jindal and has opposed previous attempts to change the program named for her late husband, supported the latest effort, telling lawmakers she saw it as the best opportunity to preserve the program for the future and lessen its burden on the state budget.
Thousands of Louisiana college students have benefited from the program since its creation nearly two decades ago.
The program is funded through a combination of state general fund dollars and tobacco lawsuit settlement money.
But during that time, the price tag for running TOPS has swelled drastically. In 2001, TOPS cost the state about $104 million. This year, it will cost about $250 million, and it’s expected to grow to nearly $300 million by 2020.
While TOPS spending has been on the rise, state funding for higher education has been drastically reduced since 2008.
The Legislature gave colleges the ability to increase tuition to try to offset some of the cuts, but that only created a cycle: Increases in tuition drive TOPS costs higher because of the direct link between the two.
Facing a $1.6 billion budget gap as they headed into session, several lawmakers had anticipated that it could create the right climate for legislation that could offer more flexibility down the road.
LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander said efforts to change TOPS will have to resume after Jindal leaves office.
“We’re trying to figure out how to sustain it over the years,” Alexander said. “It’s unsustainable.”
Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, who sponsored the bill, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
Last year, he had pushed legislation that would have raised the benchmarks that students have to meet to qualify for TOPS.
Any Louisiana high schooler who graduates with at least a 2.5 grade-point average, takes the required high school curriculum and scores at least a 20 on the standardized ACT test can qualify for the scholarship, which covers tuition but doesn’t include fees and other costs of going to college. Originally named the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students, it was renamed in 2008 for Taylor’s husband, Patrick, who helped develop the plan behind TOPS.
During a lengthy interview with The Advocate last year, Taylor said she opposed efforts to increase gpas or ACT scores because that would go against her husband’s mission of helping needy students. But she said she would be willing to support other changes — including the effort to unlink TOPS from tuition.
Several legislators and others who backed changes to the program had hoped that by winning the support of Taylor, who is close to Jindal, the governor might agree to the plan.
The Legislature frequently has debated changing TOPS to cut back its costs to the state. Last year, lawmakers passed a resolution that instructed stakeholders to come up with recommendations for how the program’s ballooning costs could be addressed. Donahue’s proposal was the measure they agreed to.
But Jindal, in his veto message, focused on the outcomes of the program, highlighting TOPS graduation and retention rates.
“Since TOPS was created, it has aided our state by sending nearly half a million students to college who may otherwise not have been able to go,” he said.