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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks at the Zachary mayor's annual prayer breakfast on Nov. 4. Edwards was a guest of Mayor David Amrhein, marking the first time a sitting governor has spoken at the event.

Advocate staff photo by STACY GILL

The University of New Orleans tossed their students a life preserver on Tuesday when they announced that TOPS recipients would not have to worry about paying for the unfunded portion of their Spring awards.

Traditionally, the state-funded Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which goes to about 50,000 students a year, covers full tuition for those earning mid-level academic benchmarks. But this is the first year the program was not fully funded because of historically large state budget shortfalls. This January, the vast majority of TOPS students will be expected to pay 60 percent of their Spring tuition, which amounts to more than $1,500 at many schools.

As letters went out to recipients warning them they would have to pay up this January, Gov. John Bel Edwards denounced the TOPS cut, calling it a failure and urging legislators to come together next year to prevent another cut to the popular student program.

UNO announced Tuesday that its 1,584 TOPS recipients would be covered for the Spring by using a move university officials say would not require the institution to spend any of its operational dollars. It also means UNO's TOPS students will no longer be on the hook for the almost $1,800 in tuition dollars they otherwise would have owed. 

UNO President John Nicklow said in an interview that the school is taking advantage of the millions of unclaimed dollars from federal Pell grants and state-funded Go Grants every year and shifting that money to cover the TOPS shortfall.

He said last year there was an estimated $44 million in unused Pell Grant dollars available to Louisiana because students didn't fill out forms to determine eligibility.

This past fall, UNO began requiring more students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, called the FAFSA. That ensures the school receives more of the income-based aid that its students are eligible for.

Nicklow also said the school is trying to reduce "over awarding," which happens when students receive multiple streams of financial aid, above and beyond their cost to attend school, and have no FASFA on file. Some schools use this as a recruitment tool, but Nicklow said ensuring UNO students only get exactly what they need – for tuition, fees, room and board and books – means the additional dollars can be shifted to provide gaps in aid for other students.

With the combination of these two measures, UNO took in more federal and state dollars and shifted those dollars to cover the gaps in the TOPS cut. Only 25 percent of UNO's enrollment receives TOPS. Nicklow stressed that UNO was not "absorbing" the cost of the TOPS cut, because it's not using its school operational dollars to bridge the gap.

At LSU, which has the highest number TOPS students in the state, a spokesman said they would not be able to absorb the cost of the massive TOPS cut, sidestepping a direct question about whether UNO's method of tapping federal aid would alleviate some of LSU's student burden.  

"Due to LSU's higher admission and academic standards, LSU has 14,086 TOPS students," LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard said in an email, adding that the cost of the shortfall amounts to more than $30 million for LSU. "There is simply no way for our university to absorb such a massive cost, but we are going to do the best we can to keep our best and brightest students in Louisiana."

Louisiana Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Rallo said all of Louisiana schools are encouraging students to fill out the FAFSA, but schools with high levels of Pell grant-eligible students and lower levels of TOPS recipients will be better positioned to close the TOPS gap.  

This week, Northwestern State University also announced that its 2,400 TOPS students would not have to shoulder the burden of the TOPS cut. 

Meanwhile, Gov. Edwards issued a statement saying that Louisiana would have to do a better job of prioritizing its students in the future.

“When we leave our kids with more student debt than necessary, we’ve failed them," Edwards said in a statement. "Going forward, it is my hope that we can restore funding to TOPS because too many students across the state are dependent upon the assistance it offers."

While there is no last-minute save for the TOPS scholarships before the spring semester begins in January, Edwards said that the program would not face any further cuts this year despite a more than $300 million mid-year state deficit.

"Despite the budget shortfalls we’re currently facing, we will not be making further cuts to this program," the governor said. "Today, we risk having an influx of students drop out of college or leave with burdensome debt. We can and must do better."

During the most recent Legislative session, law makers only funded about 70 percent of the TOPS program. The program was cut because the state was reeling from a $1.6 billion deficit, and legislators could not agree on a combination of cuts to corporate tax breaks and cuts to state services that would have spared TOPS.

In an attempt to soften the blow, legislators passed a provision that "front loaded" the TOPS awards, so the Fall semester awards were 93 percent covered, while pushing the burden of the total cut to the Spring semester, which generally start in January. Some lawmakers said this would allow recipients time to get student loans to cover the difference, if they needed it.

Edwards, on Tuesday, again condemned the decision to "front load" TOPS, saying it misled families to believe that state money would be identified to eventually fund the Spring awards. "As I said in June, the gimmick of 'front loading' TOPS gave students and parents false hope for the future," he said.

He then called on the Legislature to work with him in the coming year to prevent another cut.

"Louisiana’s budget problems are having a real impact on students and their families. The upcoming regular session in 2017 will give us another opportunity to stabilize Louisiana’s budget and invest in our children’s futures, and I’m asking the Legislature to work with me, so that Louisiana’s students are not left to shoulder the burden of our state’s financial problems,” he said.

This January, LSU's TOPS students will be on the hook for $2,442, 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.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect a comment by Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Rallo. 

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.