TOPS revamp to usher in separate bill allowing universities, not lawmakers, to set tuition _lowres

Senator Jack Donahue

Legislation aimed at reining in the costs of TOPS, the state’s popular college tuition-paying program, was filed Friday.

But unlike previous years, when similar measures have gone down to defeat, state Sen. Jack Donahue is more optimistic, saying the legislation has the backing of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, which founded the scholarship, and the Board of Regents, which oversees higher education institutions.

“It doesn’t water the program down, but it does stabilize (the finances surrounding) the program,” Donahue, a Republican from Mandeville, said. “It’s significant.”

Senate Bill 48, which was filed by Donahue and Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, would set a baseline that would cover tuition for each qualified student. Like now, the amount of the TOPS award would be determined by the tuition each Louisiana college or university charges. The measure would allow the Legislature to vote each year on whether to increase the amount each qualified student would receive. Legislators could not roll back the amount, but if in the future lawmakers refuse to increase the award, and tuition rose, the student would pay the portion not covered by the scholarship.

This structure allows lawmakers to better estimate how much the program is going to cost state taxpayers year in and year out, Donahue said.

“It does give the Legislature more flexibility. Right now, they don’t have those options,” said James A. Caillier, the Taylor Foundation’s executive director. But, the baseline structure also would protect students and their families from the impact of ever-rising tuition costs by ensuring the next year’s TOPS award would be at least what is was the year before.

“In light of all of the discussion about costs and rising tuition, it was our recommendation to come up with the option of this bill,” Caillier said.

Because state government pays for TOPS, and the scholarship covers tuition costs, each dollar added to tuition has to be paid by taxpayers.

Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo says the legislation would break that link, thereby allowing higher education administrators to manage tuition apart from the impact of TOPS funding.

“The way the TOPS funding has been going, and if it continues to go that way, it is going to dominate the funding of the rest of higher ed,” Rallo said.

“We’re not backing away from the TOPS,” Rallo said.

The legislation will be unveiled at a press conference scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students pays tuition and some fees for students who meet and maintain certain academic requirements. It requires a 2.5 grade-point average and a 20 out of a possible 36 on the ACT standardized test.

Over the years, TOPS has paid for more than 620,000 Louisiana high school students to attend in-state colleges and universities. But as the scholarship’s popularity grew, so did its costs.

The price tag for TOPS has risen from about $40 million in the late 1990s to $267 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

TOPS’ costs are determined by how many students qualify and the amount of tuition charged by each institution.

Anxiety over the ballooning costs led legislators to float various bills over the years. Measures that would increase the standards or cap the awards or other formulas to better control costs — including bills by Donahue — all were defeated when confronted with the popularity of the program among many voters and with the opposition by the Taylor Foundation and by Gov. Bobby Jindal to those proposals.

Backers say TOPS’ academic requirements have better prepared high school graduates for college and helped boost Louisiana’s college graduation rate.

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