Legislation that could rein in the cost of Louisiana’s generous TOPS scholarship program scored a key victory at the State Capitol on Wednesday, despite vocal opposition from Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The Senate voted 27-9 to send Senate Bill 48, which would end automatic increases in the amount college students receive through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, to the House for consideration.
“The TOPS program, on the current track, is unsustainable,” said Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans. “You know it’s bad when higher education is saying, ‘Please stop sending us this free money; it’s killing us.’ ”
Jindal has opposed the change, calling it an effective cap on scholarship amounts. Supporters of the bill, including higher education leaders, say its goal is to secure the future of the program, which has seen its cost to the state balloon in recent years as tuition prices have been on the rise. They argue that money spent on TOPS is taking away from other budget priorities, including general funding for college and university campuses, which could threaten the program down the road.
“It sets a baseline, rather than a cap,” said Sen. Jack Donahue, a Mandeville Republican sponsoring the bill. “It’s about ensuring a program for our kids — for the future.”
SB48, which has now made it farther than any other proposal that would have the effect of scaling back TOPS, comes as lawmakers continue to struggle with how to address a $1.6 billion budget shortfall in the coming year that could mean potentially devastating cuts to colleges and universities. The proposal is being backed by many of the program’s most ardent supporters, who have opposed changes in the past.
But the legislation could translate to more out-of-pocket costs for Louisiana college students, and it could free up colleges to raise tuition even further.
Donahue’s bill has been linked to another proposal that would give tuition- and fee-setting authority to the college system boards. Currently, tuition prices are set by the state Legislature, making Louisiana one of two states that give that power to legislators. Senate Bill 155 also passed out of the Senate Education Committee this week and is slated for consideration by the Senate Committee on Revenue and Fiscal Affairs.
Because TOPS awards generally cover tuition, recent hikes have led to the program needing more funding from the state each year. Legislators have been unwilling to give up tuition-setting authority out of fear that it would further drive up the amount the state spends on TOPS, but that autonomy has become a key priority for higher education leaders who have been told to brace for what could be deep cuts in the current budget crisis.
TOPS costs the state about $250 million a year. By comparison, the “doomsday scenario” that campuses have been preparing for calls for just $123 million in direct state support to be divvied among college campuses in the coming year.
According to the Legislative Fiscal Office, the amount the state could save is unclear because it would be relative to tuition hikes that have not been identified.
Based on a loose analysis of the recent 10 percent increases schools have adopted, the change would save Louisiana taxpayers $26.1 million in fiscal 2017, $59.5 million in 2018 and $95.2 million in 2019.
In 2001, TOPS cost the state about $104 million, and it’s expected to swell to nearly $300 million by 2020 under the current setup.
Last session, Donahue proposed legislation that would have raised the academic requirements that students would have to meet to qualify for TOPS. The proposal fell three votes shy of winning approval on the Senate floor, though Donahue said Wednesday that he believes he could have rounded up three more votes if he felt the bill needed to move forward. He said he thinks this year’s proposal is a better compromise.
“I think it’s a real balanced approach to it,” he said.