TOPS eligibility bill rejected by La. House committee _lowres

Advocate Photo by REBEKAH ALLEN -- State Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, expresses opposition Tuesday to legislation that would have changed the structure and standards for the state tuition program TOPS during a House Education committee. Rep. Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, right, watches. The bill was rejected by the committee 9-4.

Despite all the talk this session about revamping TOPS , legislators shot down another effort Tuesday to increase the qualification standards of the popular program that pays most tuition costs for eligible Louisiana college students.

“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, but Paul is broke,” state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Houma, said following the House Education Committee meeting, where the panel rejected his legislation on a vote of 9-4.

Harrison said he’s unwilling to give up trying to restructure the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students in hopes of preserving the increasingly expensive program. His is one of about 25 bills involving TOPS that was filed for consideration this legislative session.

But the only TOPS bill to make it out of committee so far is Senate Bill 520, by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville. Donahue’s bill aims to raise the minimum grade-point average and ACT scores required to get the TOPS award. The state Senate Education Committee amended Donahue’s legislation Thursday, lowering the grade-point average, before advancing the bill.

Harrison’s House Bill 1153 would have raised the eligibility standards for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, requiring a minimum ACT score of 22 instead of 20, or a cumulative grade-point average of a 3.0 instead of a core gpa of 2.5.

It also would have changed the structure of the scholarship payments so that freshmen were funded for 80 percent of tuition, sophomores for 90 percent of tuition, juniors for 100 percent and seniors for 120 percent.

Harrison said the program creates an incentive for students to continue college and finish in four years. Most students who lose TOPS do so in their freshman year, Harrison said.

The changes would save the program $17 million in its first year of implementation and $24 million by the fourth year, he said.

The changes wouldn’t go into place until the 2016-17 school year so all high school students would be prepared for the changes.

State Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, said he couldn’t support TOPS reforms that included increased ACT standards because of the effect it would have on minority students.

“When we raise the ACT by 2 points, it knocks out 53 percent of African-American students, and that’s a large percentage of the students I represent,” Bishop said. He asked Harrison if he thought that was an appropriate consequence.

A visibly frustrated Harrison, who has proposed unsuccessful TOPS reforms for the past five years, said something had to be done to trim costs of the program.

“If this is not the answer, then I’ll give you the answer: We won’t have a TOPS program in two years,” Harrison said. “You can’t just say the credit card has no limit.”

TOPS is estimated to cost the state $235 million next year and more than $300 million within three years.

If standards are raised, he said, students and educators will work to raise the bar.

The executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, James Caillier, told the committee that the bill “changes everything we’ve done for the last 25 years.”

TOPS eligibility is based on core grade-point average, rather than cumulative gpa, which Caillier said is a more appropriate measurement. He also noted freshman students should not be put in the position where they need to also hold a job to pay for the uncovered tuition.

He said the “money will take care of itself,” because TOPS only increases if tuition increases, and he said nationwide tuition is leveling off because of decreased enrollment.

The Governor’s Office submitted a card indicating opposition to the bill. In response to questions to Gov. Bobby Jindal about his position on TOPS, spokeswoman Shannon Bates emailed: “We think TOPS has been a great program for our kids, and we do not see any reason to cap it or change eligibility standards.”

Harrison said he isn’t giving up and will find a way to bring the bill to a vote on the Louisiana House floor, where he thinks it has a better chance of passing.

Among the other TOPS bills being proposed this session are House Bill 1009, which would require TOPS recipients to pay a portion of their tuition up front; House Bill 997, which would extend TOPS eligibility to students pursuing post-graduate degrees; and House Bill 385, which would require students to pay back TOPS money if they lose the scholarship for poor performance.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.