The Louisiana Board of Regents is asking state lawmakers to pass new legislation similar to a bill Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed last year that could alter scholarships college students receive through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
But board members also have been increasingly expressing interest in changing the criteria that students must meet to qualify for the popular TOPS scholarships.
And the newest chairman of the Board of Regents, Richard Lipsey, said he believes Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards could become an ally in that effort.
“I think (Edwards) would be open to us raising the eligibility for TOPS gradually over a period of time,” Lipsey said during a recent board meeting.
Edwards’ office didn’t directly address criteria changes in response to Lipsey’s remarks but said he’s “in favor of saving TOPS.”
“The Transition Committee is currently evaluating options to ensure the program is sustainable,” Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said. “He is committed to finding solutions for the long-term stability for our students but also working to providing the necessary assistance to students who need it most to get a degree.”
The Board of Regents has frequently discussed the future of TOPS and has recently been hashing out what approach it plans to take when the state Legislature starts its 2016 session.
“I think just about everyone on this board has said we need to relook at the criteria for TOPS,” said Edward Markle, who became vice chairman of the board this week. “If TOPS continues on the way it’s going, we could lose TOPS.”
The program was created as an incentive for Louisiana high schoolers to stay in the state for college and as a pathway for those who otherwise may not be able to afford to stay in school after they finish the 12th grade. To qualify, students have to take the outlined high school curriculum, earn at least a 2.5 grade-point average and score at least a 20 on the standardized ACT test. TOPS generally covers tuition but doesn’t include fees and other costs of attending college.
State leaders have been sounding alarms about the program’s ballooning price tag and what it could mean for TOPS’ sustainability.
In the most recent fiscal year, the program cost the state $251 million. That’s more than twice as much as the program cost a decade earlier. Meanwhile, the number of students benefiting from TOPS has remained relatively flat at about 45,000 each year.
“Constraints on the state’s budget and resulting increases in college tuition have increased the cost of TOPS to the point where higher education leaders and legislators are concerned about the future sustainability of the program,” the Board of Regents staff wrote in a summary of the program that will be submitted to legislators. “The Legislature could benefit from increased flexibility to sustain the program, even in times of downturns.”
Some lawmakers have pushed for changes in the TOPS educational requirements, but those proposals have all failed to gain significant traction at the Capitol. A 2014 effort that sought to raise the ACT score or grade-point average failed after it faced backlash from vocal TOPS supporters.
But last year, legislators instead pushed through a bill that attempted to unlink TOPS from tuition as a way of reining in its costs. As colleges and universities adopted yearly tuition hikes, the average per-student cost of TOPS has swelled from about $2,800 in 2008 to $5,500 in 2015.
Under that proposal, which Jindal blocked, the state Legislature would have to approve any future increases in the value of TOPS scholarships — effectively stopping the automatic increases that have been tied to the tuition hikes.
Jindal vetoed the bill because he said he viewed it as a cap on the program. Supporters of it have alternately described it as setting a “floor” or a “baseline.”
Regents debated the same points before eventually approving a proposal asking the Legislature to again pass the change, hoping that Jindal’s departure from office would set the stage for approval. Edwards voted in favor of the measure as a state representative last year.
Deputy Higher Education Commissioner for Planning, Research and Academic Affairs Larry Tremblay argued that the move would help make the program more sustainable.
“The bill didn’t cap TOPS; it just said that the Legislature would have to act to raise it,” he said.
But several regents still raised concerns. Board member Claudia Adley said she didn’t feel comfortable expressing her concerns last year because she was new to the board, but she questioned this week whether the approach was best for the state.
“I don’t like capping a program that has been very successful,” she said.
She said she also thinks the state should consider raising TOPS requirements.
Lipsey said he believes raising standards could help motivate students to do better in high school and said he thinks students already are paying attention to what’s required of them to receive TOPS.
“I think it will improve the quality of children we are getting out of high schools now,” he said. “We know that high schools are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing because we are teaching remedial courses.”