The proposed revamp of TOPS, the state’s popular tuition-paying program, will lead to another bill that would allow university administrators, rather than legislators, to set the price of tuition.
Legislation to give universities authority to set the tuition rates will be filed in a few days, state Sen. Jack Donahue announced Wednesday at a news conference lauding a different measure: one that would set a ceiling on the annual stipend, which legislators would have to vote each year to raise, meaning some parents and students may eventually have to pay some portion if tuition rises but the TOPS award does not.
Senate Bill 48, which is supported by the widow of the TOPS founder and by the Board of Regents, sets the stage by effectively decoupling the award from the amount of tuition. Because the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students covers tuition and other fees for qualified students, which taxpayers pay, legislators have been reluctant to let go of their authority to set the rates.
Higher education officials have long sought that power.
Louisiana is the only state that requires the approval of two-thirds of the legislators to raise tuition. The Legislature recently has allowed, for a time, universities that meet certain benchmarks to increase their tuition up to 10 percent.
“The Legislature should be out of setting tuition,” Donahue said. The bills Donahue is preparing would require approval by two-thirds of the Legislature and majority support by Louisiana voters before the authority would be given to the universities.
“We can’t continue as a state to have the Legislature have to decide what tuition universities should be able to charge. Each of these universities has their own board,” Donahue said. “I think we can give them the authority to be able to handle tuition as they see fit.”
Stephen Waguespack, head of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, agrees.
“We go around the country and recruit and hire these great leaders of education and we bring them here and the first thing we do is to explain to them why we don’t give them autonomy on things like tuition and procurement,” Waguespack said. “It is time that we bring these great leaders in and give them the tools to compete.”
Up first, however, is Senate Bill 48, which was filed last week and will be considered by lawmakers during the legislative session that begins April 13.
Like now, the amount of the TOPS award would be determined by the tuition each Louisiana college or university charges, but that amount would be locked in at the 2015-16 level by the Legislature, under the measure. In coming years, rather than automatically increasing the payments to match tuition costs, a majority of the Legislature would have to approve increasing the award. Legislators could not roll back the amount.
This structure allows lawmakers to better estimate how much the program is going to cost state taxpayers, said Republican state Sen. Conrad Appel, of Metairie, and co-sponsor of SB48 with Donahue. The measure would provide financial predictability for budget writers and thus ensure that TOPS won’t become a victim of the state’s ability to support the program.
“It preserves TOPS for the future,” Appel said. “We all know that TOPS has been growing exponentially. It was a danger to the state budget. … This bill gives us the opportunity to put the brakes on that, decouple it from the exponential growth.”
TOPS is expected to cost $284 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1, which is up $34 million over last year and up from a total cost of $40 million in the late 1990s.
Since the program’s inception, TOPS has helped 277,476 students and put $2.2 billion in the hands of students who otherwise would have incurred debt to go to college, according to the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, which administers the program.
Appel said the backing of the Taylor Foundation, which has consistently opposed changes in previous years, should help legislators overcome their past reluctance.
Phyllis Taylor, the widow of TOPS founder Patrick Taylor, said she wanted a way to sustain the program despite the state’s ongoing financial problems. “Our focus has always been to provide opportunity and access,” she said.
It is unclear if Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has opposed past changes, will support this measure.
“We’re going to have to review the bill,” Kyle Plotkin, Jindal’s chief of staff, said Wednesday afternoon.