At last, there is some movement on the issue of TOPS tuition costs, a perpetually difficult political problem in the Legislature.
The main bill of a two-part plan backed by legislative leaders would set a ceiling on TOPS awards. Another would get the Legislature out of the tuition-setting business for colleges; Louisiana is the only state that requires a two-thirds vote of legislators to raise tuition.
This proposal is a step in the right direction, but we note that it is a compromise that may not deal with some of the problems of the fast-growing TOPS tab for the state’s general fund.
Under the new plan, 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. 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.
The benefit of this? TOPS costs are not on autopilot, as today. The cost of TOPS, officially the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, has been growing rapidly, even as lawmakers have cut the state’s tax base. It’s an unsustainable squeeze.
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.
The principal benefit of the new bill is that it would bring predictability to budget-setting, its promoters say. If TOPS awards are to be raised, the Legislature would have to vote on it — but everyone must acknowledge that politicians could face considerable pressure to do so, every time.
Giving money away is what the Legislature is good at. Responsibly paying the state’s bills, not so much.
Significantly, the new plan doesn’t require any increase in academic standards, which seems like a prescription for more mediocrity. Far too many TOPS students fail at college because academic requirements for the award are low.
The second leg of the new plan is getting the Legislature out of the tuition-setting business. We don’t like Louisiana being a total outlier among the states in this policy. Nor is it likely that tuition will increase exponentially as a result of the change, because colleges operate in a market.
The administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal has raised tuition as a back-door means of cutting state aid to colleges, thus propping up the general fund — tax increases by another name. That is also an unsustainable game.
Given the rapid rise in tuition in recent years, the idea that colleges are going to go on a tuition spree is unlikely, and the governing boards of colleges will be constantly weighing benefits of higher tuition against the potential of lower enrollment.
Neither bill is thus a perfect solution, but we hope that this launches a more penetrating discussion of how much the state can afford to subsidize students — many from better-off families — who are only marginally college material.
That is the old school of Louisiana populism, and its financial pressures are simply no longer bearable in the budget.