As Louisiana struggles with TOPS funding, bills to reform program pass first hurdle in Senate committee

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.

A panel of Louisiana House and Senate lawmakers Tuesday heard how the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students fits into the state budget and why costs have risen.

The aid, known as TOPS, accounts for 1 percent of the total state budget and 2.7 percent of Louisiana's general fund, said Sujuan Boutte, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.

TOPS also accounts for 11 percent of the state's higher education budget and 23.3 percent of the higher education budget funded by the general fund.

The committee studying the issue is the TOPS Task Force.

The state is spending $291 million for TOPS this year.

That includes $233 million from the general fund and $58 million from the tobacco settlement fund.

The task force was set up to study the program, which pays for most college tuition for students who qualify, and to decide whether changes are needed when the Legislature meets in 2018.

Figures provided by Boutte also show that in 2016-17, the LSU system accounted for $79.2 million of the $200 million in TOPS dollars while the University of Louisiana system collected $99.9 million.

The Southern University system accounted for $2.2 million of TOPS dollars that year.

Boutte's figures show that TOPS costs have risen because of increases in tuition, the number of TOPS recipients and the movement of students between award levels and schools.

Since 1998, the state has seen a 115.6 percent hike in the number of TOPS students, a 270.4 percent increase in dollars for the program and a 292.2 percent increase in tuition.

Tuition has risen amid dramatic cuts in state aid for colleges and universities.

Boutte's office also released a list of what officials called misconceptions about TOPS.

"We took the top 10 things people say," she told the task force. "They tend to become urban legends."

It said 16.2 percent of TOPS recipients lost their awards in the first year in 2016-17, down from 41 percent in 2004-05.

Critics often say that thousand of students lose the assistance yearly, costing the state precious dollars during Louisiana's prolonged budget crisis.

The figures show that 31.6 percent of TOPS recipients come from families with incomes of up to $50,000; 30.7 percent from families with incomes of $50,000-$100,000 and 31.3 percent from families with incomes of more than $100,000.

State officials said the figures are a response to criticism that TOPS is top-heavy with students from wealthy families.

The figures also show that the price tag for the program is set to rise by $1.5 million for the 2018-19 school year, or 0.6 percent.

The financial assistance agency figures show that, among high school graduates for 2015-16 school year who were eligible for TOPS, 46 percent also were eligible for federal Pell grants, which aids students from families with modest incomes.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.