Bills filed to change TOPS, make it easier to close universities by lawmakers _lowres

Advocate staff photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — Incoming freshman and transfer students head to their next STRIPES activity Tuesday, August 11, 2015 on Louisiana State University’s campus.

Scaling back TOPS scholarships, merging college campuses, giving universities more authority to raise their own tuition and restructuring the boards that govern higher education are among the proposals affecting Louisiana’s post-secondary institutions lawmakers will debate over the coming months.

None of these concepts are new to the Louisiana Legislature, and almost all of them already have been proposed and defeated in previous years. But the pressure to change the status quo and implement structural changes across higher education is at a boiling point, as legislators grapple with potentially doling out the eighth straight year of cuts to colleges.

The Legislature convened Monday to begin work on the 2016-17 fiscal year, which opens with a shortfall of an estimated $800 million. The budget projections for higher education include steep cuts in state funds to the classroom and to the TOPS scholarships, which legislators will work to fix over the next few months.

Changing the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students has proven to be a nearly futile effort every year for lawmakers concerned with its ballooning price tag. TOPS is an immensely popular Louisiana scholarship program covering tuition costs for in-state students who meet midlevel academic benchmarks.

Roughly half of high school seniors qualify for TOPS, and the unbridled program has been growing in cost to the state both as more students become eligible and as public schools increase their tuitions.

A fully funded TOPS, in its current form, will cost the state $294 million. In 2001, it cost the state $104 million.

Legislators already have submitted more than a dozen bills to try to rein in the cost of TOPS. Proposals include increasing the eligibility requirements from a 2.5 GPA for core curricula to a 2.75 GPA and moving the minimum ACT score from 20 to 21. Other proposals included forcing students to pay back TOPS scholarships if they lose eligibility and ending TOPS payments to students who attend for-profit schools like ITT Technical Institute and private universities like Tulane.

But the one with the most traction is a bill that passed last year, by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, but was vetoed by then Gov. Bobby Jindal.

This year’s version of Donahue’s measure would lock in the value of TOPS awards at its current level. So if a TOPS recipient receives $5,000 for tuition at a school this year, in the coming year, the scholarship amount for students at that school would stay at $5,000, even if tuition increases. But Donahue stressed that it’s not a true cap, because the program continues to grow as more students are eligible. Instead, the bill decouples TOPS from tuition increases, which would curb some growth in costs for the state.

“At any time, if the state was doing better (financially) — though I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime — and the Legislature want to increase TOPS awards by $100 per semester per student, for example, then the Legislature could do that,” Donahue said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards is supporting the measure, so much so that he’s included it in his package of priority bills. Other legislators, including the heads of legislative education committees, Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, and Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, submitted nearly identical bills.

Shauna Sanford, an Edwards spokeswoman, said the governor thinks the idea will help promote the “long-term sustainability” of the program. “He recognizes that TOPS is very helpful in providing a way for students to attend college who might otherwise not be able to do so,” Sandford said in an email.

Donahue’s idea also has the backing of the influential Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, named for the scholarship’s founder.

Executive Director James Callier said the foundation supports Donahue’s bill over many other proposals to raise the eligibility requirements.

“If we do that (increase standards), we’re going to hurt the kids that this program was originally designed to help,” Callier said. “Low-income, minority kids are generally at the bottom, so if you start raising the standards, you are going to hurt those kids”

Morrish proposed several bills both raising the ACT score and the GPA requirements for TOPS. But he said his motivation wasn’t about saving the state money. Instead, he said moving the goal posts would encourage students to push themselves a little harder.

Morrish also proposed a measure that would allow voters to decide in November if tuition authority should be stripped from the Legislature and handed over to the governing higher education boards. He said it would be paired with Donahue’s bill, which would encourage schools to try to keep their costs low for students by staying as close as possible to the TOPS award ceiling.

But changing TOPS standards will be a Herculean effort, Morrish acknowledged.

“There is a general consensus in the Legislature that we’ve got to do something to get TOPS under control,” he said. “But it’s also an extremely popular program with constituents.”

Private schools already are pushing back against bills that would cut their TOPS allotments.

“TOPS is earned by students and awarded to students,” said David Rowe, president of Centenary College and chairman of the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges & Universities. “So let’s be clear: Cutting TOPS is not cutting funding to colleges and universities; it is cutting funding to students and their families.”

Other bills aspire to tackle the structure of how higher education institutions operate.

Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, sponsored one of the bills filed attempting to abolish the Board of Regents and the other boards governing the higher education systems.

He said having one single educational board that oversees all the institutions, including two-year colleges and the historically black colleges and universities, instead of the five currently in place would reduce the competition for resources and administrative overhead.

Appel has another bill that would require the higher education boards to do an evaluation of their schools and determine whether merging, closing or changing from a four-year to a two-year school would improve efficiencies.

Similarly, Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, has a bill that would allow the Legislature to close or merge campuses that have a graduation rate of less than 12 percent. The Legislature already has the authority to do that, but it requires a two-thirds vote. This change, which would first go to voters, would allow the closures with a majority vote.

Higher education commissioner Joe Rallo said he is open to discussing a number of bills proposing structural changes, including Appel’s bills.

“We don’t take it as a criticism; we’re moving into a brave new world in higher education,” he said, adding that the New York higher education system has one board for about 60 institutions.

Rallo said the board is generally supportive of bills that would curb growth to TOPS while still allowing it to be an accessible program to students, such as Donahue’s bill.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.