Special report: Once geared toward poor, black students, now major shift in TOPS beneficiaries _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Students make their way around campus on Field House Drive near Lockett Hall during the first day of fall semester classes for LSU students, Monday, August 24, 2015.

As a political sacred cow, it’s hard to beat tuition waivers that drastically cut the cost of college for thousands of students and their families. So it is no surprise that there are many bills related to the TOPS awards in the Legislature, in addition to the major fight within the budget of paying the substantial and rising bill for the program.

There’s some good news in all this, but first the bad news: Legislators and Gov. John Bel Edwards are on track to a collision over funding TOPS. The governor wants to raise taxes to fill budget holes left by his predecessor’s financial mismanagement; some in the GOP House want to oppose tax increases, and take the hefty bill for TOPS’ costs from elsewhere in the budget.

We doubt the latter is practical. At more than $300 million in pure state dollars, not federal matching funds, we doubt there is a politically achievable budget cut that will pay the bill.

Republicans on the Appropriations Committee suggested taking money from tourism, and that did not sit at all well with GOP Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who is in charge of tourism and already is looking at budget cuts in his operations. Other “shifts” will be robbing Peter to pay the bursars of colleges.

What we don’t want to see is the thousands of students depending on TOPS for the coming semester to be left hanging until the last possible moment by budgetary brinkmanship.

What’s the good news? A bill, derailed last year by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, that will make TOPS funding not an automatic entitlement when tuition goes up. That bill, by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, is moving again through the process, introduced by Donahue and others. Edwards will sign that bill, a constructive way to get a handle on TOPS costs.

What happens, though, if the funding levels in the budget beginning July 1 force a cut in TOPS? Under current law, the program will cut back through a system based on merit: Students with the lowest test scores will lose their waivers, so that the program’s budget can be balanced.

With the spirt of Huey P. Long ever present in the State Capitol, the notion of taking something away from a voter is, of course, terrifying to politicians. A set of bills would change the worst-case scenario, eliminating even the pretense of merit in TOPS.

Instead of reducing the number of waivers, the cut would be spread among all of them — so that the top students on TOPS will take a cut along with those only marginally meeting the program’s generally low standards.

It’s a classic Huey Long approach to a problem: “Everyone will get something,” said Sen. Blade Morrish , R-Jennings. If the funding for TOPS ultimately is at 50 percent, then everyone would receive 50 percent of their scholarship.

TOPS is promoted as a merit award, but this would cut the best students to keep the lowest-performing students in school. Given that the legislators are fearful of the political consequences of the budget fight, this is an easy out for them. We would not bet against the Morrish bill or something similar passing the Legislature this year.

Whatever the Legislature and governor may do, we hope that they will pay attention to real life: Students plan ahead, and some Louisiana campuses already are reporting uncertainty from potential students who are calculating TOPS awards in their decisions.

The simplest thing, of course, would be for lawmakers and the governor to agree on TOPS funding. Ultimately, we think that will happen, but until then, the legislative calendar and the academic calendar are not in sync, to the detriment of Louisiana students.