Grace Notes: TOPS might be Gov. Edwards’ best bet to secure special session next month _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Participants enjoy the free food and information booths. LSU's Fall Fest celebration took place on Oct.. 2, 2015, at the LSU Parade Ground. The annual event included food music, The Golden Band from Tiger Land, LSU Golden Girls, LSU Cheerleaders. and a welcome from LSU President F. King Alexander.

Scholarships that college students receive through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students in Louisiana will no longer automatically cover full tuition.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office announced Tuesday that the governor had signed Senate Bill 174, as anticipated, which is aimed at reining in the ballooning costs of the popular TOPS awards by removing a guaranteed link between tuition and award amounts.

TOPS scholarships, which are offered as an incentive for Louisiana high schoolers who meet certain academic benchmarks, have traditionally matched tuition rates -- even as colleges hiked the cost of attendance.

That led to ballooning costs for the program in recent years. In the coming year, full funding of TOPS would be nearly $300 million. The state budget crisis already has threatened thousands of scholarships.

Under the new law, TOPS awards will be locked in at the current rate, meaning scholarships won’t automatically increase to match tuition rates. Instead, students and families will likely have to cover the costs of tuition hikes, unless the Legislature acts to increase TOPS.

Supporters say that removing the automatic link between tuition and TOPS awards will create more certainty for the program moving forward. Critics of the measure argue that it breaks a promise to students who meet the minimum requirements.

Any Louisiana high schooler who graduates with at least a 2.5 grade-point average, takes the required high school curriculum and scores at least a 20 on the standardized ACT test can qualify for the scholarship, which has traditionally covered tuition but didn’t include fees and other costs of going to college.

Edwards, a Democrat who took office Jan. 11, offered no statement with the notice that he had signed the TOPS measure, but he previously has expressed support for efforts to curb costs.

Former Gov. Bobby Jindal last year vetoed a similar bill that sought to set a new limit on award amounts.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .