Tulane report recommends turning TOPS into need-based scholarship, capping income _lowres

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If the state needs to save money on TOPS, it should impose an income cap instead of chipping away at the lowest achieving students, said a New Orleans-based education organization.

The Cowen Institute at Tulane University released a report on Tuesday exploring the impacts of a variety of changes proposed for Taylor Opportunity Program for Students by Louisiana legislators trying to control the ballooning costs of the popular program.

Most of the proposals already have stalled in the Legislature, like bills to increase the eligibility requirements and force students who fail to pay back the award. But the state is still grappling with whether it will be able to fully fund the scholarships, which are estimated to cost almost $300 million for the next fiscal year, starting July 1.

“If legislators must reduce the cost of TOPS, they should do so by capping the income of recipients so that students who can least afford college are still eligible to receive the awards and gain a post-secondary education,” the report states.

If the program was limited to students from families who earn $50,000 or less, TOPS would have cost $84 million this school year, instead of the $267 million it was budgeted, the report says.

It notes that in 2014, 41 percent of students receiving TOPS came from families making $100,000 or more, and 20 percent of recipients came from families earning $150,000 or more. That number has doubled since 2005.

At the same time, only 17 percent of students who receive the award are black, compared with 75 percent who are white.

The Cowen Institute also suggested that in lieu of an income cap, the Legislature could impose a sliding scale on TOPS. In this scenario, students from all income levels could receive TOPS, but the amount of their award would depend on their income, with lower income students receiving larger awards.

No bills matching the recommendations were proposed for this legislative session, and the deadline has passed to submit new bills for consideration.

So far, the Legislature has passed and the governor has signed into law a bill that capped the awards at their current level, so if tuition increases in the future, the TOPS awards would stay the same, and students might be responsible for a sliver of their own tuition.

The Legislature also proposed bills earlier in the session to prevent TOPS from being used at private schools, to force students who fail to repay TOPS to the state and to increase the minimum ACT score from 20 to 21 and the minimum GPA from a 2.5 to a 2.75. Those bills all have been withdrawn or watered down.

One bill that increases the standards to receive additional stipends for the highest earning TOPS recipients has been passed by the House and the Senate.

The report notes that eligibility increases in particular would have a drastic impact on eligibility in New Orleans. If the GPA was increased to 2.75, 28 percent fewer students would be eligible in New Orleans, compared with 22 percent fewer across the state.

If the ACT score was increased to 21, 23 percent fewer New Orleans students would receive the award, compared with 28 percent fewer in Louisiana.

When TOPS was first created, back when it was privately funded, it was geared toward poorer, minority students who couldn’t afford college. It has since expanded into a publicly funded, merit-based program that largely benefits middle-class and affluent families.

This is the first year in TOPS history that the program isn’t fully funded in the budget, and legislators are struggling with how to close the gap to ensure all eligible students receive the award before school starts.

If the state doesn’t fully fund TOPS, then legally, those students who have the lowest ACT would be cut first.

However, this week the House is expected to debate a bill that would reallocate the award so all eligible students receive a portion of the award.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog/.