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Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge

Advocate staff photo by Travis Spradling

A legislative committee is looking at potential changes to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, a popular program that Louisiana can’t really afford, and hopefully the effort will produce a rational plan to trim the cost of the tuition waivers by gradually raising academic standards.

Raising the required grade-point average for high school students to qualify for TOPS would have a significant impact on the number of students who get the aid, according to figures provided to the panel. That may not be popular, but it’s a better solution than what the state is doing now: Freezing the size of TOPS grants.

Under current rules, college will pile on fee increases every year, meaning the percentage of higher education costs covered by TOPS will gradually shrink. Some of Louisiana’s brightest students will leave for schools like the University of Alabama, which distributes its scholarship money more strategically.

Right now, students have to earn at least a 2.5 on their high school core curriculum for the most common form of the aid, called TOPS Opportunity. Raising that to 2.75, as state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, proposed in a bill this year would reduce the number of eligible students by 19 percent, data supplied to the 10-member TOPS Task Force shows. The state House approved Foil’s measure, but senators balked.

Boosting the minimum GPA to 3.00 would trim the list of eligible high school students by 44 percent, according to figures from the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.

Those are intimidating numbers, but even Foil’s modest bill would not have taken effect until today's 9th-graders graduate.

We agree with Foil that students should be given ample warning, such as four years ahead of time, for changes to the TOPS requirements. And we think there is plenty of experience to show that if students get notice, they will improve their high school performance.

In other words, it is misleading to suggest that the modestly higher requirement in the Foil bill — 2.75 as a GPA — constitutes a firing squad for today's recipients.

What is the real threat to TOPS waivers? We have already seen it, when the award had to be reduced because the Legislature deadlocked over the budget; students in the spring semester this year had to write significantly higher checks to colleges as a result.

TOPS is popular, but in its current form it is not a good deal for the Louisiana taxpayer. Because standards are too low, at one time as many as a third of students lost their grants, although colleges reported they've done better to keep TOPS recipients on track. The last data available, from fiscal year 2016, suggests that 12 percent of students lost the award for academic reasons. But that percentage represents a waste of time for students and money for the state. Higher standards challenge students to do better and assure taxpayers their money is well spent.