Minimum ACT score for TOPS would be 28 next year, under worst-case budget scenario _lowres

Advocate staff photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — Dr. William Wischusen teaches Biology 1201 Wednesday, August 26, 2015 to a class of 900 students inside the LSU Cox Communications Academic Center auditorium.

The immensely popular TOPS scholarship could become a virtually unrecognizable state program for only the brightest Louisiana high school graduates next school year, under an austere budget scenario presented in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposal, which assumed no new taxes.

For the next fiscal year that begins July 1, Edwards presented a budget that only funds the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students for 21 percent to the program’s total cost, leaving a $233 million shortfall.

Under that scenario, TOPS would be eligible to about 9,000 students, because the criteria would be changed so that only high school students earning a 28 or higher on the ACT would be eligible for the full tuition reimbursement promised by the program, Sujuan Boutté, executive director for Louisiana Office for Student Financial Assistance, told legislators on the first day of the special legislative session.

Many legislators, including Republicans, have already agreed that a combination of cuts and tax increases would be necessary to balance this year’s and next year’s budget, so it’s unlikely that the budget for TOPS would be approved in the proposed form.

About 57,286 students would be eligible for TOPS in the 2016-2017 school year under the current requirements, with a total price tag to the state of $293.5 million. Edwards’ budget proposal sets aside $60.3 million for TOPS, which comes from interest earnings from a 1990s-era tobacco lawsuit settlement.

TOPS is a merit-based scholarship program that covers in-state tuition for students who meet academic benchmarks. The TOPS Opportunity Award, which is the standard package, requires a minimum ACT score of 20 for eligibility. The Honors award, which is the highest level of TOPS and comes with an $800 per year stipend on top of tuition, requires a 27 on the ACT.

The TOPS Tech award, which is geared toward community and technical college tuition and requires a 17 on the ACT, would be eliminated under the no-new revenue scenario.

The average ACT score for recipients of the TOPS Opportunity award is a 22. A perfect ACT score is 36.

Boutté said her office is statutorily required to account for lack of funding by cutting off ACT scores from the bottom, reducing the number of total awards given based on merit.

So, if the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen, but the Legislature still fails to fully fund TOPS, the ACT minimum requirement could end up somewhere between a 20 and a 28.

In the current fiscal year, TOPS also is underfunded by about $28 million. Last year, the state Legislature appropriated $265 million to cover TOPS, which did not take into account tuition hikes that were implemented across the state.

Edwards administration said last week that universities and colleges — not students — would be responsible for absorbing the midyear cut.

The Louisiana Legislature convened Sunday for the start of a special legislative session to close a midyear budget deficit estimated at upward of $850 million.

The Edwards administration is warning that the shortfall for the budget that begins July 1 is more than $2 billion, which includes the TOPS shortfall.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.