Stephanie Grace: TOPS an unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky idea, much like Bernie Sanders’ free college promise _lowres

Advocate staff photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — Incoming freshman and transfer students head to their next STRIPES activity Tuesday, August 11, 2015 on Louisiana State University’s campus. ORG XMIT: BAT1508121038074895

If I didn’t know better, I’d think TOPS was the brainchild of a Vermont senator, not a Louisiana oilman.

That enticing but hopelessly unrealistic dream that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders keeps talking about, the one where government provides a free public college education to all? Well, it’s really not so far off from what Louisiana offers, not to everyone but to the 35 percent or so of high school grads who meet some pretty attainable benchmarks, including a 2.5 GPA and a score of 20 on the ACT.

The knock on Sanders’ proposal isn’t that it’s a silly idea or that it wouldn’t genuinely benefit people who face all sorts of other expenses and could really use a break. It’s that, with all the demands government faces, it’s unaffordable. The same is true for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, at least in its current, open-ended form.

TOPS started as a small, private program, financed by self-made businessman Pat Taylor and was designed to give high-achieving low-income students a shot at college.

But it’s long since morphed into a taxpayer-funded entitlement available to average students, regardless of family income — one that often benefits middle-class or well-off kids and that has gotten far more expensive as direct state funding to colleges has dropped and tuition bills, which TOPS fully covers, have risen. TOPS has cost more than $2 billion since its inception, with no end in sight and no mechanism to control costs, even as the state grapples with a record budget shortfall.

Regardless, the status quo certainly has its backers, including many people who, I suspect, would never consider casting a vote for Sanders. This group includes former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who last year vetoed an effort to curb the program’s ever-expanding price tag.

Prospects for change look more promising now that Jindal’s gone, and the Legislature is getting ready to consider a vast menu of options during the regular session that kicked off this week.

Eighteen bills aimed at placing limits on TOPS, some of them overlapping, have been filed. The array of options includes raising academic standards, freezing scholarship levels, subtracting available need-based aid, requiring those who don’t keep up their grades or stay in Louisiana after graduation to repay the state, no longer providing scholarships for cosmetology and proprietary schools, and limiting them to majors that would qualify graduates for target jobs. Some proposals wouldn’t kick in until today’s high school students are already in college, and others would start sooner.

And unlike his predecessor, Gov. John Bel Edwards agrees that at least some changes are needed to save the program. While Jindal vetoed Sen. Jack Donahue’s prior effort to freeze scholarship amounts even if tuition rises, unless the Legislature intervenes, Edwards included the Mandeville Republican’s Senate Bill 174, which proposes the same thing, in his legislative package. Edwards also has put similar bills by House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry and Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan “Blade” Morrish on his wish list but does not favor raising standards for TOPS, his office said.

Still, even passing a measure as modest as freezing costs promises to be politically difficult. Students on TOPS don’t pay tuition, but they do have to come up with money for rising fees and living expenses, in an era in which many families aren’t feeling very flush. If anyone doubted the public’s fierce support for the program as is, they only needed to listen to the uproar when Edwards recently floated the notion that TOPS scholarships would be on the line if lawmakers didn’t close the budget gap.

That doesn’t mean it’s not finally time to act, though. The idea that TOPS can stay on its current path, just like some of Sanders’ ideas, is simply pie in the sky. The sooner the state sets a more sustainable course, the more likely TOPS will be around for future generations of high school grads.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.