UL-Lafayette making do with less — so far _lowres

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- UL-Lafayette students cross St. Mary Boulevard on the UL-L campus Thursday, September 17, 2015, in Lafayette, La.

New news is not good news for TOPS recipients, as letters go out reminding them that come January, they will be paying two-thirds of the tuition bill formerly covered by the popular program.

The Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards deadlocked over tax increases to fund the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, so by law the tuition waivers must be reduced. The some 50,000 students on TOPS will require checks to be written, to about two-thirds of the spring semester’s tuition.

As students and their parents know, TOPS never covered the full freight of a college education; room and board and other fees added up to a considerable amount. Some of the fees, including titles like “excellence fee,” were just tuition under another name but were not covered by TOPS because of that technicality.

At LSU, which has the greatest number of TOPS recipients, the waiver will be worth $1,559. That leaves LSU's TOPS students on the hook for $2,172, plus fees. At Southern University, students who received the award will still owe $1,447, and at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, they'll owe $1,573.

At the University of New Orleans, enough unclaimed student aid funds were found to pay for the TOPS shortfall this semester, but that of course only puts off the day of reckoning for the overall funding of the program. During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers only funded about 70 percent of the $300 million TOPS program. The program was cut, but the available funding was “front-loaded” to the fall semester, leaving the bigger impact in January.

That was officially to give families time to plan, but also represents the willful financial blindness of lawmakers, who keep thinking something might turn up to avoid hard choices. Oil did not go back to $100 a barrel, and former Gov. Bobby Jindal left only debts buried in the backyard of the Governor’s Mansion.

Instead, the state’s colleges and universities are facing further midyear budget cuts, largely as a consequence of bad budget policies under Jindal.

Universities backed a constitutional amendment on Nov. 8 that would have shifted tuition responsibility from the Legislature, which has managed it poorly, to the college management boards. That initiative was rejected, leaving Louisiana the only state where a two-thirds vote of lawmakers is needed to raise or lower tuition.

This was widely interpreted as blowback against the tuition increases during Jindal’s two terms, as colleges replaced with tuition some of the budget cuts of those years.

Now, with more budget cuts coming and a potential impact on enrollment from the TOPS spring cutback, the future is murky. A drastic reduction of state aid directly to colleges during the Jindal years means that campuses are more dependent on tuition and fees.

Legislators made the political decision to reject the original law for TOPS cuts. That would have reduced the number of applicants based on academic merit. Instead, they are spreading around the pain, providing lower benefits to more recipients. It’s a police-jury mentality.

Meanwhile, Louisiana’s campuses feel some impact in terms of quality and competitiveness as their funding declines, and thus graduates’ degrees suffer in terms of their value in the marketplace.