In a major change, Louisiana high school students would have to fare better in their key classes to earn a TOPS award under a bill that won easy approval Wednesday in the House Education Committee.
The panel, after only a brief discussion, voted 9-3 for a bill that would require students to get a 2.75 grade point average on their high school core curriculum, up from 2.50 GPA now.
The measure, House Bill 117 by state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, now moves to the full House for debate.
The proposal is sure to spark controversy.
The new rules, if they win final approval, would apply to high school graduates starting in 2021.
The standard would apply to the basic TOPS award, called Opportunity. TOPS stands for Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
Students who qualify have their tuition in state colleges and universities financed by the state, when the program is fully funded.
Foil initially offered a bill that would raise the GPA to 3.0.
He said he trimmed it after discussing the issue with colleagues.
"I think people found that more palatable," he said after the meeting.
Foil noted that the change would also trim costs of the program, which was underfunded for the first time in the 2016-17 college school year. Students got 67 percent of the traditional assistance, with most of the reduction in the spring semester.
Annual savings would range from $12 million to $17 million, legislative officials said.
Nearly 52,000 students get the aid.
Under the current snapshot, about 1,800 fewer students would qualify if the higher standard was in effect.
Foil called the elevated standard modest.
"And we are giving the kids four years before it would go this would go into effect, know where the bar is and make the grade," he added.
Gov. John Bel Edwards opposes the change.
The bill was also opposed by James Callier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, which is named for the founder of the scholarship.
"This would greatly impact the low income and minority students," Callier told the committee.
He said requiring high school students to earn at least a 2.50 GPA on the core curriculum is the "toughest in the country" for such programs.
"It is working very well right now," Callier told lawmakers. "This bill would have the effect of discouraging them (students) from taking the core."
He said 76 percent of high school students do so now.
"That is significant, even if they don't get TOPS," Callier told legislators.
Foil's legislation was backed by the Council for a Better Louisiana.
Earlier, a bill that would make sweeping changes in TOPS when it is underfunded was rejected by the same committee.
The measure failed 6-7 after about two hours of debate.
The proposal, House Bill 390, would revamp the way the state aid is allocated when TOPS has a funding shortage starting in 2020.
Under current rules, TOPS recipients generally face the same financial reductions.
Under the bill, two sets of students would continue to get 100 percent of the traditional amount, even in lean times. Those who scored 30 or higher on the ACT – a test of college readiness – would be protected.
The other shielded group would be TOPS recipients who live in families with annual incomes of less than $60,000 or so.
State Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, sponsor of the bill, said his plan would address concerns that TOPS should be merit based and those who contend it should be based on financial needs.
"I look at it like a hybrid bill," Carter told the committee.
In a bipartisan but controversial push, two state lawmakers have filed bills that would make…
Opponents said those left out of the two exceptions would experience drastic reductions in state aid.
A higher education official said that, for such a TOPS recipient at LSU during the spring semester, the assistance would have dropped from about $5,000 to around $500.
"Wow. That creates a little heartburn for me," said state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge and the committee member who asked the question.
If the law was in effect with the current makeup of students, nearly 32,000 would qualify for 100 percent funding and 20,000 would not.
A bill that would require TOPS recipients who leave the state to repay some of their assista…
Callier said Gary Carter's bill would turn TOPS into a needs-based scholarship, and overturn the original purpose of the aid.
"How can you tell the student who starts in the ninth grade, take a very challenging curriculum, that they may or may not get the aid?" he said. "That is intellectual dishonesty. We shouldn't treat our students that way."