The Legislature appears ready to make modest administrative changes to the popular TOPS tuition waivers at colleges. The changes do not attack the basic problems of low eligibility standards, because that is too tough a political battle for a middle-class entitlement program.
But even minor changes proposed have drawn some criticism from Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Lawmakers are working toward a way to make the cost of the program more predictable for the future.
In 2001, TOPS cost the state about $104 million. This year, it will cost about $250 million, and it’s expected to swell to nearly $300 million by 2020. That’s quite a lot for a program in which as many as 40 percent of recipients at some campuses fail to keep the awards through four years, because low standards translate into unreadiness for college courses.
The House approved Senate Bill 48 on Tuesday and the Senate approved small changes in the measure, which now goes to Jindal’s desk. The legislation would end automatic increases in the amount college students receive through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students when tuition goes up. Instead, awards will remain at the 2016-17 level, unless the Legislature authorizes future increases.
The bill by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, is a good-faith effort on finances. This is, despite the governor’s concerns, not really a hard cap on the program.
Repeated tuition hikes in recent years have led to ballooning costs for the program and spurred some to look into ways that it could be scaled back. Tuition has gone up 10 percent each year on most campuses for the past six years, while Jindal and the Legislature slashed general funding for higher education.
We also note that the Donahue bill is backed by philanthropist Phyllis Taylor, widow of the early backer of the program, Patrick F. Taylor. The program is named for Mr. Taylor, and for Jindal to oppose the Donahue bill seems a bit of a reach. You can’t be more for TOPS than Mrs. Taylor.
We hope that the governor, whose backing of TOPS is a matter of record, will look again at the Donahue bill. We don’t see it as a solution to the low academic standards required for the basic TOPS awards. Nor will lawmakers be immune from political pressure to raise the awards.
The Donahue bill doesn’t go into effect, either, without passage of a companion measure that would allow colleges and universities to raise tuition — within limits — without a vote of the Legislature, as is now required.
Should the Donahue bills get to the governor’s desk, they will constitute more of a speed bump on TOPS costs than a cap. The governor should be able to support these measures.